Exquisitely carved jade seal or 'chop' used for signing documents and paintings
Jade has been the most treasured gemstone in China for thousands of years. Considered indestructible and immortal jade has a powerful influence in Chinese art and culture. Back in the Han dynasty emperors were buried in suits made of thousands of tiny rectangles of jade sewn together with gold wire in the belief that jade would preserve the body. Examples of these magnificent suits can be found in Nanjing and Hefei, Anhui (Liu Sheng's tomb). Fine jade ornaments found in Liaoning from 3500BCE and Jiangsu from 2500BCE, show the very long history of working in jade. Ancient jade was made into circular disks (bi ➚璧) with a central perforation which symbolized heaven; whereas the jade ‘cong’ 琮 (a square outline encasing a cylindrical hole) symbolized earth.
Traditionally, a rod of jade was given when someone reached the age of 70. It was called a jade scepter 玉杖yù zhàng or dove staff 鸽杖gē zhàng and measured one foot long with usually a dove carved at one end as the dove symbolizes longevity. Ceremonial insignia of office in ancient China include the jade scepter (gui) and spear (戈gē).
In many ways, jade in China holds the same rank as gold and diamonds in the West, it is also highly prized in other countries in Asia; Central America and Australasia.
True jade comes in a variety of colors and is either the mineral jadeite or nephrite. The most common color of jade is light green. Fashions in jade come and go, with different colors gaining popularity, currently white or cream jade is the most highly prized. Jade according to legend came from holy mountains, and was mined for centuries in the Kunlun mountains near Hotan, on the south side of the Turpan basin in Xinjiang. Boulders of jade can still be found on the banks of the Karakax and Yurungkash rivers there.
The character for jade 玉yù shows three pieces of jade strung together. The addition of the dian (dot) stroke completes the character and distinguishes it from 王wǎng the character for monarch, while still illustrating the kingly connection. The modern form of the character for kingdom is 国guó which has the jade character enclosed in a boundary to represent 'country' and so jade is a component of the name for the country of China - Zhongguo 中国. Jade as a character radical is used in a range of other characters such as 现xiàn 'appear'; 瑰guī 'precious'; 玷diàn 'blemish' and 理lǐ 'principle'. The English name ‘jade’ comes from the Spanish ‘piedra de ijada’ ➚ from the belief that jade combats kidney ailments.
A carving of flowers in jade making clever use of the natural color variations
Composition of Jade
Jadeite is a sodium aluminum silicate (NaAlSi2O6) in the pyroxene group of minerals. It is quite rare and occurs only in low grade metamorphic rocks ➚ (sedimentary rocks that have experienced a period of increased pressure and temperature). Jadeite tends to be light to emerald green in color. The main modern source of jadeite are mines in neighboring Burma. In October 2016 a huge block was found ➚ and valued at $180million. Nephrite is the other mineral considered as 'true jade' (zhen yu) and was used before Jadeite became available in the 18th century. Nephrite is a different mineral - a tremolitic or actinolitic amphibole ➚. It has a more varied composition which gives a wider range of colors - when nephrite contains a lot of iron it can even be brown or orange. Nephrite is softer than jadeite and was mined extensively in the Kunlun mountains ➚ that form the border between Xinjiang and Tibet. Due to the variation of color with many bands and veins it is a matter of luck as to how useful an excavated block of jade will turn out to be. Unfortunately some 'jade' on sale is counterfeit and may be soapstone or other cheaper materials. True jade can usually be distinguished by its hardness (it can not be marked by a steel knife) and its coldness to the touch.
The Chinese dragon is no fire-breathing monster, in China they are regarded as powerful but benevolent. As dragons are masters of rain, water and sea they need to be brought on your side if you want a good harvest, and so they need suitable offerings. The Dragon boat festival held near midsummer is when everyone used to seek to placate the dragon kings.
One of the most famous jade sculptures is the Jadeite Cabbage ➚ on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. A piece of jade was chosen that naturally grades from cream to dark green to match a real cabbage. It was expertly carved in the Qing dynasty. Hidden within the leaves are a locust and katydid and they symbolize female virtue. The exhibit is very popular with long queues forming to catch a brief view of it each day.
Associations with Jade
The Jade Emperor is the supreme god (玉皇帝yù huáng dì) of the Daoist tradition. Emperor Zhenzong of the Song dynasty used a supposed mystical connection with the Jade Emperor to bolster his rule. Jade exemplifies all that is good and so is associated with the noble man (junzi ➚) of Confucian ideals. By legend it is considered as crystallized moonlight (a very yin substance). Many colloquial expressions have jade associated with parts of the body, often complimentary but with a sexual connection. The Queen Mother of the West (西王母xī wǎng mǔ) is often shown by a jade pool. She was reputed to live in the Kunlun mountains - the source of jade.
Like most other things the Chinese invented their own version of the chess board game. There are strong reasons to suppose that the Chinese game象棋 Xiangqi or 'elephant game' is closer to the original form. The absence of a 'queen' piece and the strange rules for 'cannons' make this just as challenging a game as the version played in the West.
Confucius extolled the virtues of jade in this lengthy tribute.
“Jade is precious not because it is rare, but because the quality of jade corresponds to virtue. It relates to such virtues as benevolence, wisdom, righteousness, propriety, loyalty, and trustworthiness, and it also corresponds to the ways of the heaven and earth. Jade is mild and gentle, just like a benevolence. Jade has a fine texture yet it is solid, just like a wise person; with a careful, meticulous and thorough way of handling things. Though jade has edges and corners, it is not sharp and will not hurt others, resembling a sense of justice and uprightness. When the jade is hung, it symbolizes polite restraint and prudence. When it is struck, it releases a clear and spirited sound like music. Though jade is beautiful, blemishes do not obscure its merits. Just like loyalty, it is without bias and without the need to conceal. In addition, the color of jade can be seen from all angles. Just like trustworthiness, a person's behavior is consistent with words. Even in a darkened room, a person is trustworthy and does not cheat others. Jade is crystal like, glittering and translucent as a white rainbow, like the white clouds of heaven, which harmonize the heavens and correspond to heavenly principles. The spirit of the jade can be seen in the landscape, like ‘when jade lies in a deep pool, it makes the river enchanting. When jade rests on the mountain, the grass becomes luxuriant.’ Wherever located, it is bound to have an effect, just like a noble demeanor can harmonize many things and benefit the whole region. People everywhere cherish jade, which is because people respect and admire virtue. The noble virtues are the manifestation of heavenly principles.”
Modern Chinese Dushan jade sculpture from central China.
It shows the variability of color within a block of jade. Here the artist has used the variation to exquisite effect.
Image by Artfiber ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
Jade was used as a tough stone originally for axes and knives in the Stone Age, as a superior alternative to flint. Thereafter its use became ceremonial and ornamental as although hard it is rather brittle making it unsuitable for fashioning knives. There are many sayings that include jade. Just as in English where ‘rough diamond’ is used to describe an uncouth rascal, in Chinese there is a similar expression. Here are some proverbs concerning jade:
Yù bù zhuó bù chén qì [yu bu zhuo bu chen qi]
jade not polished not accomplish gem
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn [xiang xiao yu sun]
fragrant vanish jade broken
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman
Whom the Gods love die young
Huā huā shì jiè [hua hua shi jie]
flower flower lifespan limit
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life
Nìng wéi yù suì, bù wéi wǎ quán [ning wei yu sui, bu wei wa quan]
stand pride jade broken, no pride tile complete
Don't be a proud piece of broken jade, be a complete tile
Better to persevere than face destruction by standing out
Xiá bù yǎn yú [xia bu yan yu]
defect not conceal jewel
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person
Féng jiān nìng kě yù suì, qì zhèng bù qiú wǎ quán [feng jian ning ke yu sui, qi zheng bu qiu wa quan]
come upon traitor stand approve jade, spirit straight no beg tile complete
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender
Pāo zhuān yǐn yù [pao zhuan yin yu]
throw brick draw jade
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Modestly allow others to contribute to conversation by making a silly remark