Jade has been the most treasured gemstone in China for thousands of years. Considered indestructible and immortal jade has had 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 consists of 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 aand 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. Its legendary origin is 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.
Confucius extolled the virtues of jade in this lengthy tribute.
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:
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