The History of Jade in China
Today, the stone known as “jade” is divided into two different minerals: jadeite and nephrite. In ancient Chinese literature however, the word “jade” meant many types of carved minerals. It includes not only the Nephrite, Xiuyen jade, Dushan jade, turquoise, agate, etc., but also some precious stones e.g. crystals. The Chinese word for Jade is “Yu” and it was described as “beautiful stone” in the first Chinese dictionary by Xu Zhen, circa 58-147 AD.
Archaeologists have found jade objects in China from approximately 5000 BC (Neolithic period). Obviously, in ancient times, people could not identify jade based on an extensive knowledge of mineralogy, so stones of good quality with beautiful color that passed the visual observation, feel and resonance test (combined with intuition) were classified as jade. However, this broad category was narrowed down over time. With social progress, strict selection, long term multiple uses of jade, and then the eventual vesting by Confucianism (551 BC – 479 BC) as the “virtuous stone”, Nephrite Jade emerged victorious.Confucius stated that jade’s 11 virtues be the roadmap for human existence. At this time, Haitian (Hotan) Nephrite Jade became the very valuable, the most sought after and became known as “Treasure Jade”.
Although it comes in many colors, White Haitian Nephrite Jade (also known as mutton-fat jade) is the most desired of all native Chinese jade. Authentic white Haitian jade is almost impossible to find on the international markets nowadays because many mines are almost depleted or already closed. If good quality white jade does emerge, it’s extremely expensive and it is usually bought up locally and stays in China.
The word “jadeite” comes from the Kingfisher, a bird with extremely beautiful feathers. The male Kingfisher has red feathers and it is called Fei (red-feathered bird), the female has blue feathers and is called Cui (blue-feathered bird). Because the most of jadeites from nature are green and red, the word “Feicui” has gradually been adapted to name the mineral Jaedite. (Kingfisher /Imperial Jade) Although we associate Jadeite with its rich luster and emerald green color, it exists in a wide variety of colors that include white, lavender, yellow, blue, black, red, orange, and gray. Jadeite exists in extreme harmony with nature, it represents the vigor and youth of all things, and is highly revered with oriental nations, especially the Chinese nation. In about 13th century, during the Qing dynasty (1271-1368), jadeite was found in a mountain valley in the north of Burma, since then, Burma (Myanmar) has always been one of the major producing countries of highest quality jadeite in the world.
The story of Jadeites discovery is attributed to a “pack horse driver” in Yunnan, China, on the way back to Tengchong from Burma. In order to balance the weights on both side packs on the horse, the packer randomly picked up a stone from the side of the road (in the what today is called “Moung Kung” region in Burma) and balanced his load. After arriving home, he took a close look at the stone and found that had green veins in it and could be jade. To his delight and after diligent polishing, the stone finished up as a beautiful dark green and proved exceptional in quality. The rest is truly history.
Note: Moung Kung belonged to China at that time and was under the jurisdiction of Yongchang Prefecture of Yunnan Province.
At that time, the Qing Dynasty (with a short, but brilliant history of 300-400 years) started really utilizing jadeite and promoted its beauty and value, it surpassed nephrite in popularity very quickly. Jadeite was easier to work with, was tougher and polished up to a deep, rich translucency. Over many of the following great Chinese dynasties it became the symbol of everything good, the symbol of protection, of good health, of beauty, of great wealth, of security, of strength and much more. Many burial suits made of jade tiles and sewn with silk and gold thread have been found in excavations of burial tombs around China. It was generally believed that jade would protect you, ward off evil spirits and speed your journey to the afterlife. However, ownership of Imperial Jade was reserved only for the Emperor. There are many exquisite jadeites to be viewed in either the antiques of the Qing court or the sacrificial objects of imperial mausoleums around China..
Nephrite vs. Jadeite – They are both Jade.
In 1860, Hetian jade and Jadeite brought by the Anglo-French Allied Forces from China to Europe were analyzed by French mineralogist Damour. When testing for characteristics such as specific gravity, hardness, component, structure, etc., he found Jadeite and Nephrite have distinctly different mineral compositions. Jadeite is an aluminum-rich pyroxene and was harder than the Nephrite. Haitian jade is a magnesium-rich amphibole and is softer. Damour called the Hetian jade “Nephrite” and Jadeite was named “Jade-Stone”. Damour specifically identified these gemstones as the two varieties of “Jade” and documented their unique characteristics for the ages. Unfortunately, other types of jades and jade look-alikes have entered the marketplace in recent years, and jade identification has increasingly become a very specialized process.
China has a long history of the production of jade items. Archaeological excavations show jade has been used to produce the fine tools and ornaments going back 7000 years. The ancient traditions have travelled safely to modern days. On the journey, the methods of jade selection, the caving techniques and the craftsmanship has been carefully protected and perfected. Today, exquisite jade is just as synonymous with China tradition as fine porcelain or fine tea. The Chinese people have a special and mysterious relationship with jade, after all it is a virtuous stone. Jade symbolizes faithfulness and dignity and it has a deep and rich cultural connotation.
Chinese people use phrases like:
Wen Run Ru Yu (as gentle as a jade), Jie Shen Ru Yu (as clean as a jade), Bing Qing Yu Jie (as clean as ice and as pure as jade), etc., to praise the noble personality of jade.
Or, Yu Rong (Beautiful face), Yu Se (color of jade), Yu Ti (Beautiful body), etc., to describe the beauty, and Ting Ting Yu Li (slim and graceful), Jin Zhi Yu Ye (jade leaves), etc., to describe good energy and feeling.
And, terms such as Qie Cuo (cutting and polishing), Zhuo Mo (carving and polishing) also have become the part of people’s daily expressions when discussing jade production.Items made from jade have a multi-dimensional and deep cultural meaning to the Chinese people. For thousands of years’ people made tools, utensils and weapons from jade, wore jade jewelry on their bodies, displayed jade in their homes, gave jade as a gift in relationships and used jade in various ceremonies religious and otherwise. Jade has been an integral part of China’s culture, since China became China.
Today, the best specimens of jade can cost more per carat than high-quality diamonds. You no longer have to be nobility to own the “Stone of Heaven”. If you can afford it, jade ownership lets you reap the rewards, inherit the virtues and bridge the gap between heaven and earth for you and those in your life you would like to bestow its great merits.