CHINESE JADE

JADE

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Qing period Jade cabbage
The Chinese have revered jade since Neolithic times. Archeological data shows that the ancient Chinese were using nephrite jade to make ornaments and weapons between 7000 and 8000 years ago. According to an ancient Chinese proverb: "You can put a price on gold, but jade is priceless."[Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, September 1987; Timothy Green, Smithsonian magazine, 1984]

The Chinese word "yu which we translate as "jade" actually refers to any rock that is carved. Some 30 or 40 different kinds of mineral in China are called yu. Nephrite is known as "lao-yu" (“old jade”) or "bai-you" (“white jade”) and jadeite is known as "fei-cui-yu" (“kingfisher jade). John Ng, a jade specialist and author of Jade and You, told Smithsonian magazine, " The Chinese or Japanese have no hesitation in buying good pieces to give their families or friends for good luck. To the Asian, giving jade conveys a special feeling."

According to the Chinese creation myth, after man was created he wandered the earth, helpless and vulnerable to attacks from wild beasts. The storm god took pity on him and forged a rainbow into jade axes and tossed them to the earth for man to discover and protect himself with.

Some scholars have suggested that Chinese civilization was built around jade. Known as the "Stone of Heaven," it was more valuable than gold or gems in imperial China and was considered a bridge between heaven and earth. Prized for both its beauty and symbolic value, jade has traditionally been worn as talisman by Chinese and shaped into a variety of objects. Jade was also prized by the Olmec and Mayan civilizations in America and by the Maori in New Zealand.

Jade comes in two forms: nephrite and jadeite, both of which are prized for their hardness, firmness and ability to be carved and the luster they generate that creates an appearance of transparency. Nephrite and jadeite are two chemically different and distinct materials. Both are technically rocks not gems, since they are mineral aggregates rather than crystals. Natural stones passed off as jade include chrysoprase, jasper, serpentine and soapstone.

Websites and Resources

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Mayan jade mask
Good Websites and Sources: Jade Factoryjadefactory.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; British Museum britishmuseum.org ; International Colored Gem Association gemstone.org ; Book: Jade and You, by John Ng

Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China --Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Art History Resources on the Web witcombe.sbc.edu ; Art of China Consortium nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/mclc.osu.edu ; Asian Art.com asianart.com ; China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Huntington Archive of Asian Artkaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu ; Qing Art learn.columbia.edu Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw ; Beijing Palace Museum dpm.org.cn ;Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; China Page Museum list chinapage.com

Chinese Culture: Cultural China (site with nice photos cultural-china.com ; China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu China Research Paper Search china-research-papers.com ; Book: The Culture and Civilization, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press).

Links in this Website: EARLY CHINESE ART Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; SHANG DYNASTY (2200-1700 B.C.) AND XIA DYNASTY Factsanddetails.com/China ; ZHOU (CHOU) DYNASTY (1100-221 B.C.) Factsanddetails.com/China ; HAN DYNASTY (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) Factsanddetails.com/China ; TANG DYNASTY (A.D. 690-907) Factsanddetails.com/China ; SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) Factsanddetails.com/China ;YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ; QING (MANCHU) DYNASTY (1644-1911) Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE JADE Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE CERAMICS AND PORCELAIN Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE PAINTING Factsanddetails.com/China ;CHINESE CALLIGRAPHY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE CRAFTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; COLLECTING, LOOTING AND COPYING ART IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

Jade Symbolism in China

Revered for its hardness and texture, jade symbolizes the cosmos, wealth, political power, security, good health and strength. In China, jade cicadas have been placed on the tongue of the dead to speed resurrection; jade pigs symbolize prosperity, jade disks represent heaven and a piece of jade enclosed within a square signifies the earth.

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Han-era jade suit

Confucian scholars compared the 11 virtues of jade as models for human behavior. Confucius himself equated the stone with intelligence, truth, loyalty, justice, purity and humanity, and he used the stone to symbolize the idea of junzi, the noble or superior man. Taoist alchemists mixed up elixirs with powdered jade that they hoped would make them immortal.

The emperors communicated with the gods through jade disks; and Chinese poets called the skin of beautiful woman "fragrant jade" and the part of her body which men love so much to enter, her "jade gate." A jade donut has traditionally been given as a gift to newborns. Jade gifts were commonly given as bribes to corrupt Chinese officials. In athletic events second and third place contestants were given trophies of gold and ivory, while the winners were awarded jade.

Jade is prescribed as a medicine and credited with having miraculous powers and the ability to ward off evil and bad luck. A villager in Xinjiang told the Los Angeles Times, “I believe it will cure everything. I have heard when it touches your skin, it sucks out the poisons.”

Jade as a Mineral

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Ming-era jade fish
Nephrite is a silicate of calcium and magnesium. What distinguishes nephrite from other rocks with the same chemical composition is its needle-shaped grains and tightly interwoven, fluted, fibrous structure. Nephrite is stronger than most steels and has waxy, fibrous texture.

Nephrite comes in a variety of colors, including its most prized color yellowish-white "mutton fat," long cherished by Chinese carvers and collectors. Without impurities nephrite is snowy white. The presence of magnesium and iron produce a bluish white color. Yellow is produced by ferric ion, brown by hematite and grey and black by graphite.

Nephrite is more abundant than jadeite and is found mostly in dolomitic marbles and serpentised ulramfics. It was first discovered by Chinese, who regarded it as very rare material and went through great trouble to obtain it. Today, it is found in many places, including China, Siberia, Taiwan, New Zealand, Alaska, California and Wyoming. Boulder-size deposits exist in British Columbia and Australia. The only expense is transported them. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest piece of jade is a piece of nephrite found in the Yukon Territory of Canada that weighed 636 tons.

Jadeite is a silicate of sodium and aluminum. It is generally shinier and slightly heavier and harder than nephrite but not as tough. Jadeite rates 7 on Mohr scale of hardness compared to 6½ for nephrite and 10 for a diamond. About 90 percent of the worlds jadeite comes from Myanmar. There are additional small deposits of the stone in Russia, China, Japan, and North and Central America. The first shipments of the stone from Burma to China arrived in 1784, and has been greatly valued since then.

The ancient Chinese did not make a fine distinction between true jade and jade simulates. Common jade simulates fall into four classes: 1) serpentine 2) feldspar, 3) carbonate and 4) quartz groups. Quartz group specimens, such as the transparent colorless rock crystal known to the ancient Chinese as "aquajade," are the most observed form of jade stimulant. Carnelian, known as "red jade" in antiquity, is ideal for carving.

Jade Colors

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jade boulder
Most jade has a bright green color associated with jade jewelry, though it comes in a host of other colors such as white, black, yellow, red, blue, and lavender---depending on the chemical composition of the stone. Variations of iron content in jadeite can produce brownish-red, dark green or lavender hues. White translucent jade is highly prized.

Green jadeite gets its green color from the element chromium. The most prized jadeite is translucent, emerald green jade known as "Imperial jade." Devious sellers can dye jade a richer color of green by heating it slowly to 212̊F and soaking it in chromium salts for two hours. The dye penetrates the cracks between the jade crystals and buyers are easily fooled. Good “dye jobs” are hard to detect. With bad ones the color seems to 'float' on the surface of the stone, indicating the dye has not penetrated deeply.

The Chinese character for jade, "fei-ts'ui, "represents two species of kingfisher with feathers whose colors are similar to those of brownish-red and emerald green jadeite.

Early Jade Sources in China

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Green jade plate
The sources of ancient neolithic jades is unknown. Most of the nephrite jades from the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C) onward originated in dolomite deposits in the Kunlun Mountains in Xinjiang Province near western Tibet. Since most of this jade came from the Ho-t'ien (Hotan ) District, it was called "Ho-t'ien jade."

Dark-green Chinese nephrite usually comes from the serpentined ultramafics in Tien Shan Ma Na Su in the Xinjiang Province. Nephrite of this color is also quarried today in Hualien in Taiwan, in New Zealand and in Canada.

Some of the highest quality jade in China---most notably the whitish mutton fat jade---comes from an area along the banks of the Yulong Kashgar River near Hotan. Two-thousand-year-old historical records refer to a Jade Road from the area. Many gifts presented to emperor have been made with Hotan jade. One piece of Hotan mutton fat jade weighed 11,795 pounds was carved into an image of an ancient emperor leading flood control efforts. It now resides in the Forbidden City.

The Chinese switched from nephrite to jadeite when the emperors of the Qing dynasty extended the Chinese empire in the 16th century into the Yunnan Province and the Kachin State of present-day Myanmar. Kachin State is one of the world’s primary sources of jadeite. According to legend the first boulder of jadeite brought into China was carried from Kachin on the back of mule by a merchant who used the boulder to balance his load.

Nephrite found in western China has traditionally been collected by "jade pickers" who wander the shores of dry river beds picking up stones washed down from the nearby Jade Mountains during the spring floods.

Neolithic Chinese Jade Pieces

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Jade tablet, 3200-2000 B.C.
In the Neolithic period (5000-2000 B.C.), priests and military men used jade pieces in the worship of deities and ancestors. The most common ornaments---round pi discs and square ts'ung tubes---symbolized the round heaven and the square earth. Jade ornaments in ancient China were used as authority objects and emblems of power.

Ancient Chinese believed that their ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments. Ancient shaman most likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Jade was also used in ancient burial ceremonies.

In ancient times jade was wedged or cracked from a stone and most likely shaped by artisans using grind stones. Metal tools had not yet been invented. It took a considerable amount of time to shape, polish and engrave the elaborate pieces displayed in museums. Most are though to have been created for royalty or nobility.

Neolithic Circular Jades

right Circular jades were fairly common in the Neolithic period. Although they were usually discs with a hole in the middle there were pronounced regional differences. Northern jades from the Hongshan culture (4000-3000 B.C) were transparent green in color, thin on the outer and inner edges, and decorated with images of interlocking clouds and linked circular shapes. Northern jades pieces were mainly worn as ornaments.

Southern circular jades from the lower-Yangtze Liang-chu culture (3200-2300 B.C.) were mostly green and often dotted with white spots. Used primarily as ritual objects, these circular jades were about 20 centimeters in diameter with a central hole drilled from both sides. Raised edges lined the central hole, while the outer edges were flat and circular. The small arc-curves sometimes seen on the surface are remnants of the cutting and carving process.

Northwestern circular jades from the Lungshan culture (2500-2000 B.C.) and Shensi and Kansu Qichian culture (2000-1600 B.C.) have a surface with straight lines and a central hole drilled from one side with an angled wall and an upper rim larger than the lower rim. Eastern jades from the lower Yellow River Ta-wen-kou culture (4300-2300 B.C.) were mostly small sized objects influenced by northern and southern styles.

Shang and Zhou Jades

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Shang-era jade tiger
Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.) circular jades are generally similar to northwestern circular jades. Later Shang pieces featured raised inner rims and thin outer edges, sets of carved concentric circles and images of curling dragons, fish, tigers and birds. During the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) jade pendants were very popular and the level of their craftsmanship was unmatched in any future period.

During the Shang and Zhou dynasties jade objects were important objects in ceremonies and rituals. In the Western Zhou period (1100-700 B.C.) the type and number of circular jades used in ceremonies represented a person's social status. Circular jades from this period were often cut into symmetrical pieces to form sets of two or three pieces.

Circular jades made during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period (722-221 B.C.) were smaller than those from the Shang and early Zhou periods. They contained carved images of curling chih dragons, grain seeds, and cloud patterns. During this period circular jades were commonly worn by people. Materials other than jade, such as agate and glass were used to make "jade" ornaments.

Jade Suits and Pieces from Han Dynasty

During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), the imperial family held jade in great esteem. While alive they wore jade pendants and ingested jade powder. When they died were covered and stuffed with jade. Banners and tomb tiles were imprinted the round pi disk, which was believed to assist the deceased reach the next world quicker.

In the Han period, jade objects were believed to possess auspicious meaning, their uses and functions multiplied. Circular jades---often containing images of twin-bodied animals, mask patterns, grain seeds, rush mat designs, curling chih dragons, and round tipped nipples---decorate buildings. Engraved dragon and phoenix patterns were popular in the Han imperial court.

The greatest expressions of the quest for immortality were the jade suits that appeared around the 2nd century B.C. About 40 of these jade suits have been unearthed. The jade suit of the 2nd century B.C. Prince Liu Sheng unearthed near Chengdu, Sichuan province was made of 2,498 jade plates sewn together with silk and gold wire. Liu Shen was buried with his consort who was equally well clad in a jade suit. Sufficient room was made for the prince's pot belly.

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Jade suit of Liu Sheng, 113 B.C.

Jade suits were believed to slow decomposition and effectively preserve the body after death. A jade suit unearth in Jiangxi Province was made of roughly 4,000 translucent pieces of jade held together with gold wire. Designed to form fit and cover the body, it has the shape of a robot from 1950s B science fiction movie.

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Jade Pieces from the Tang and Sung Dynasties

During the Six Dynasties and Tang Dynasty, jade artistry went into a period of decline. Stones similar to jade but not jade itself were used in ceremonies. The only jade artifacts from this period that have survived are items like combs, belt plaques, hairpins and pendants.

From the Sung and Ming dynasties onward, jade artistry recovered its former grandeur thanks mainly to the emperors, who used jade in official ceremonies, and scholars, who had studied the importance of jade in Shang and Zhou dynasty rituals.

The imperial family and the scholar class prized jade objects that were both beautiful and practical. Jade was fashioned into flowers, birds, people, landscapes and other subjects that were also featured in painting and poetry. Artist tried to craft pieces that incorporated the natural shape of jade stones, which were usually river pebbles. The resulting shapes had auspicious meanings.

Jade Pieces from the Qing Dynasty

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Five Rats
Jade pieces from the Qing imperial court were characterized by their impressive size, neatness and symmetry. Common motifs included dragons, emblems of the emperor, various auspicious symbols, and imperial inscriptions and marks. These jade pieces were often put on sandalwood pedestals or kept in special cases and boxes.

During the early Qing Dynasty, jade from Xianjiang was carved into elaborate floral designs, shallow reliefs the thickness of paper and ornaments inlaid with colored glass or gold and silver thread.

Jadeite carving really took off in China under the Qianlong Emperor (1736-96) who preferred the varied translucent colors of jadeite to the opaque "chicken bone" jade and "mutton-fat" nephrite that was prized before him. Jadeite from the Yunnan Province and northern Burma was imported into China in large quantities in the 19th century and became prized above all other kinds of jade.

Jade Business in China

The jade world is hard for outsiders to understand. Jade lacks clear, well-understood standards of quality as is the case with diamonds. A rating system exists that evaluates jade on scale from "A" for "exceptional" to "E" for "acceptable" based on tone, texture, translucence and color but it is not widely followed or recognized.

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Qing-era jade bird
Many aspects of the traditionally jade business are like a guessing game. "Rough jade," wrote Timothy Green in Smithsonian magazine, "has an opaque skin, rather like the shell of a nut, caused by oxidation. To the untutored eye it looks just like any other large stone and the true contents is very hard to detect. That uncertainty is the very essence of the jade game...The logical approach would be to cut open the [rough jade boulder] immediately, but that would spoil the fun---and the potential for profit. The trick, for both buyer and seller, is to stake their judgement on three crucial points: How true is the color throughout the stone? How translucent is it? And are there cracks and flaws within?"

To determine the value of the jade a small "window" is cut into the skin of the boulder. Buyers use flashlights and spotlights to try and determine the depth and translucence of the color. One buyer told Smithsonian magazine, "Even the best appraiser can see only 70 percent of the value of the stones. He can see the quality of color but not quantity of the color.” Another buyer, with 21 years experience, said, “You need a good memory, because you must study every piece you buy and remember how the crust of the rough looked, and the color distribution when it was cut. Then, if you see a similar stone, you apply that knowledge. I often recall a stone I saw ten years ago."

In many places jade is still changed hands using an ancient Chinese ritual to keep the bidding price secret in which the buyer holds the jade he is bidding for in one hand and holds hands with the seller underneath a cloth with his other hand. The buyer only speaks the words for "hundred" or "thousand" and makes a signal with his hand under the cloth to express a number between one and ten. If a buyer extends two fingers under the cloth, for example, and shouts "thousand" he is making a bid for "2000."

Jade Carving in China

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Jade carver at work
Up until about fifty years ago most carvers used the traditional method of drawing a bowstring back and forth to propel a drill with water and abrasive.

Unlike ivory, jade is to hard to carve. It is shaped through cutting, grinding and polishing. Some craftsmen use electric tools, others use traditional tools such as pedal-operated treadle grinder, which has remained essentially unchanged for over a thousand years. One craftsman who prefers traditional tools told Smithsonian magazine, "We could use a diamond saw, but this traditional method gives him more control. There is less wastage, because you can cut a very thin slice."

Master jade craftsmen, like diamond cutters, take their time sizing up their pieces of jade. "It's an expensive material," one carver told Green, "and you've go to be careful, can't make mistakes. We think about it for a few weeks." One scholar told Green, "Ideally the shape you are looking at should be as close as possible to the original boulder. The craftsman is asking himself, 'How little can I do and still make it a pleasing piece?'"

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sidewalk jade carver
"Sometimes we just enjoy ourselves," a Chinese carver told Green. "But jade carving is very slow, and it takes a long time to sell, because the market for jade carving is narrow: just a few collectors here and in Japan and America.”

The workshops that mass produce simple jade jewelry are a different story. Green wrote: "A young craftsman in T-shirt and shorts uses a treadle cutter with a rope attached to a steel blade to saw through a five-pound piece of jade. His bare feet made a relentless patter on the treadle, and he regularly fed the blade with a mixture of abrasive grit and water."

The first step in making a bangle is carving an outline on the on the jade. Then the jade is cut into slices about half an inch thick and the holes are drilled out. "Drills like those of a dentist...punch out the center and shape the bangles," wrote Green, ", which are finally ground and polished on diamond wheels." The retail price for a jade bangle is usually about three times the wholesale price. Quality pieces have a fine grain, good color and translucency."

Hotan Nephrite

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jade in back of a truck in Khotan
Hotan jade accounts for about 10 percent of the annual $1.2 billion jade trade in China. Much of it is mined by small-time prospectors with sieves who hope for a big strike but get by mostly with relatively small pieces of white, green and brown jade that they can sell for a few cents a day,

In recent years the otan area has become flooded with jade prospectors, so many in fact that some people worry that the area could suffer environmental damage that could last a long time and the resource that have kept the region going for millennia could be used up. Most worrisome is the damge caused by big mining operations. According to some reports 80 percent of Hotan ‘s jade has been exploited as of 2006 and there is only enough to last for three to five more years.

A ban has been placed on mining along the Yulong Kashgar River but the ban has had little effect and mining has pretty much continued as before because local officials have been bribed by the big miners. As many a s 20,000 people and 2,000 pieces of heavy equipment continue to work the area, leaving behind strip-mine-like gashes as deep as 30 feet.

In imperial times, Hotan jades were sent as tributes to Chinese emperors and carved into exquiste works of art and made into chops used to seal official documents. The price of Hotan nephrite soared in the mid-2000s, quadrupling in value in 2007 alone to 10,000 yuan ($1,347) a gram for the best-quality stone, or 40 times the value of gold. .

Burmese Jade, Hong Kong and China

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Hotan jade miner
Most of the world’s jadite is made into finished products in Hong Kong or Taiwan, mostly easy to replicate jewelry such as bangles and rings. Carving delicate figurines is time- consuming and expensive and there are only a few collectors that can afford the prices which often can be as high as $100,000 to $250,000. The highest price ever paid for jade jewelry was $9.39 million for necklace with 27 beads of emerald green jadeite. It was sold at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong.

The relation between the jade merchants of the Kachin State and the craftsman in the Yunnan Province endured for centuries but was broken by the Communist Revolution, when jade merchant set up shop in Hong Kong and carvers and crafts men migrated to Hong Kong from Beijing and Shanghai. Today, the quality of jade craftsmanship is much better in Hong Kong than it is in China or Taiwan.

Of the jadeite that reached China from Myanmar in the 1980s, about 40 percent of it was bought legitimately from auctions in Burma, 40 percent was smuggled through Thailand, and the remainder came directly from Burma to China's Yunnan province.

These days Chinese in Yunnan are buying more and more jade directly from the Kachin State. Much of the jade is purchased by buyers from China's National Arts and Crafts Import and Export Corporation in Beijing and the Guangdong Arts and Crafts Company in Guangzhou (Canton).

Jade Miners in Khotan

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Large mutton fat jade piece
in Hotan Cultural Museum
Nephrite found in western China has traditionally been collected by "jade pickers" who wander the shores of dry river beds picking up stones washed down from the nearby Jade Mountains during the spring floods.

In the Hotan area modern miners and prospectors use a variety of methods. Some dig holes in the river banks with picks and shovels. Others dig pits with their bare hands. More sophisticated operations use bulldozers to strip mine large swaths of earth, diesel-engine power pumps to spay water on patches of dirt and rock to reveal promising pieces of rock that can be checked out further with high powered drills.

By one count around 100,000 jade miners flood the Hotan area in the peak season in the spring and summer with only a handful finding enough jade to justify the time and expense spent looking for it. One miner told the Time of London, “In the summer this whole place is black with people. If the there are 5,000 searching then maybe 100 will find some good jade---but “there’s always a chance, you never know, And the price is now so high.”

Describing a small time miner, Jane Macartney wrote in the Times of London, ‘smeared with mud and dust, men and women crouch in hollows they have dug on river banks, scratching among the boulders for a stone to make their fortune...Small time panners like Yimin Narhun...shovels out a ditch in which he can scrabble for stones while his wife and three-years-old son watch.” “I have found nothing,” the sheep farmer said. “But you never know. One good rock and my fortune is made.”

See Hotan Nephrite, Above

Jade Markets and Factories in China

Describing a makeshift jade market in Hoton, Macartney wrote in the Times of London, ‘some lay their wares on wooden bedstands: chunks of rock that look more like brown-veined stones than the stuff of dreams. Others open a fist to show a handful of pebbles from white to green to brown...Shops line the streets in Khotan, selling jade, cut into shapes from time smiling Buddha heads to shrimps, monkeys, flowers and fruit.” One shop sold a mutton-fat Buddhist figure for $13,475.

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Jade bazaar in Hotan
Much of China’s jade and semiprecious gems are made into jewelry and carvings in more than 2,000 small and medium-size factories in and around Shenzhen. These factories process 50,000 tons of semiprecious stone jewelry a year, 70 percent fo the world’s total.

Today, jade carvers mostly use diamond tipped equipment. In jade factories some workers cut big pieces of jade into smaller pieces. Others shape them into bangles and beads, polish them, drill holes and sting them onto earrings, bracelets and necklaces. The factories also make jewelry and other objects from onyx, turquoise other stony minerals. Buyers of jade today beware. Very little of what is sold at "jade factories" is actually jade. Often it is soapstone, agate or bowerite, and other minerals are used that are difficult to distinguish from jade without a microscope.

The factories are often sweatshops with poor ventilation and miserly managers who won’t even provide their workers with masks. In some factories the workers live in dormitories with bunk beds and without any showers or baths, requiring them to wash themselves using towels and buckets.

Boulders of jade are cut into smaller pieces with electric saws manned by workers who are paid as little as $20 a month. After a day's work they are covered in dust and look like coal miners, except the dust is green, red or yellow depending on the color of stone that has been cut. Many work without masks and develop respiratory problems, in some cases coming down with cancer or a disease called silicosis, or dust lung, while still in their early 30s. Silicosis kills more than 26,000 Chinese workers a year in professions such as mining, quarrying, gem cutting construction and shipbuilding.

Khotan Jade Boom

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Mutton fat jade for sale
at Khotan Jade Market
Quality jade from the muddy White Jade River in Khotan is now more valuable than gold, with the most prized nuggets of mutton fat jade fetching $3,000 an ounce in 2010, a tenfold increase from a decade earlier.[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 20, 2010]

A generation before some valuable jade pieces were treated as ordinary rocks. Thirty-year-old Lohman Tohti told the New York Times he recalls as a child heaving melon-size hunks into the sandbags that were used to thwart rising flood waters of the White Jade River. When Chinese buyers began arriving here in the early 1990s and the locals got wind of the stones potential value, his uncle made an enviable deal: he traded a rock the girth of a well-fed hog for a skinny cow. Today, my uncle would be a millionaire, Tohti, now a jade dealer, said with a wince. [Ibid]

The jade boom, , fueled by a combination of new Chinese wealth and a 5,000-year love fore the stone, turned Khotan into something of a boom town in the late 2000s and in the process turned some Khotan cotton farmers and Chinese carpetbaggers into jade tycoons. “The love of jade is in our blood, and now that people have money, everyone wants a piece around their neck or in their home,” Zhang Xiankuo, a Chinese salesman told the New York Times as he opened a safe to show off his company’s most expensive carved items, among them a pair of kissing swans that retails for $150,000 and a contemporary rendition of a Tang dynasty beauty, her breasts impertinently exposed, that can be purchased for $80,000. [Ibid]

Uighurs, Chinese and Jade

Unlike elsewhere in Xinjiang, Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese seem to be getting along in Khotan with both prospering from the jade trade. The Uighurs have largely made their fortune harvesting jade from the river and selling it to Chinese middlemen. Because devout Muslims are proscribed from dealing in certain representational images, the Han have come to monopolize the carving and sale of Buddhist figurines, stalking tigers and the miniature cabbages that are popular among Chinese consumers. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, September 20, 2010]

“Jade has no meaning for our culture, but we are thankful to Allah that the Chinese go crazy for it,” said Yacen Ahmat, a Uighur who spends seven days a week working the crowds at Khotan’s jade bazaar, a busy marketplace dominated by prospectors trying to unload jade pieces on savvy wholesalers or east-to-dupe tourists. [Ibid]

Hu Xianli, a 59-year-old self-professed jade fanatic from eastern Zhejiang Province, told the New York Times he had been duped countless times over the years. At best, he has grossly overpaid for mediocre specimens. At worst, he has mistaken chemically treated rocks for mutton-fat beauties. A retired railway engineer, he likened his relationship with jade to an overpriced college education. “In the early years I paid a lot of tuition, but now that I’ve finally graduated, I’m not so easily fooled,” he said as a throng of overeager sellers, hands full of egg-size stones, thrust their wares into his face. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Mostly from the the Palace Museum in Taipei with some from the Silk Road Foundation, Wikimedia Commons, National Museum in Beijing amd the Metropolitan Museum of Art , Beifan http://www.beifan.com/, CNTO and BBC

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2010

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