If you’re a gemstone lover then you’ve probably heard of or come across Jade. It’s one of the oldest gems in existence that’s loved and revered by many all over the world more so in China. From early periods until today, this stone eternally remains a mystical stone that’s fascinating and desired by many. It’s mostly referred to as an indestructible and enigmatic stone.
In Chinese culture even today, the gem is the most highly valued stone in the country. There is a Chinese saying that states that it may be easy to put a price on gold but Jade’s value is priceless. Being an important gem to the Chinese, it has also helped grow the country’s economy. The growing demand for quality jade has led to an increase in its price and value at the turn of the century.
But have you wondered what jade is, what it’s made of, and where it came from? What makes it so important in China? In this post, we attempt to answer all these questions by covering the fundamentals of Jade. The following content is everything you need to know about the gem and its relation to China.
Jade History in China.
Jade has been in use for almost all periods in Chinese history, from prehistoric times to the modern-day. The gem refers to two kinds of gemstones, nephrite, and jadeite. Nephrite was the earliest known form of Jade that appeared in many different colors, but the most preferred was the green jade with an emerald hue.
Later on, there was a liking developed for white jade with a brown tinge. Afterward, pure white jade became more available in China, from central Asia. It wasn’t until much later in the late imperial China period that China was introduced to jadeite a stronger more durable form of Jade. Today jadeite is the most widely used form of Jade in China.
Where Was Jade Found in Ancient China?
Nephrite is the earliest form of jade known in China and was mined in the country ever since the Neolithic era of the pre-historic period. Although depleted today, the main source of jade in this era was from the Ningshao region that is along the Yangtze River Delta and Liaoning province in inner Mongolia. Three centers were involved in jade working, they were, Lake Tai district by Liangzhu culture, China’s east coast region by Longshan culture, and the today’s northeastern border in China, by Hongshan culture.
During the Han dynasty, the jade was being gotten from an oasis called Khotan. It was 5000 miles away from where the Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures, that practiced jade work earlier, were located. Aside from Khotan, earlier dynasties sourced for jade in other areas like Lantian, Shaanxi, where you’d find greenish and white nephrite jade. River jade mining was also practiced in Yarkand, along the black and white jade rivers, Karakash and Yurungkash, respectively. Much later towards the end of the imperial period in China, was when jadeite was introduced to China. It was sourced from Burma and imported in large quantities to China.
When Was Jade Discovered in China?
The earliest form of jade in China, nephrite can be traced back 5000BCE, in the prehistoric period during the Neolithic era. Around this time, they were mostly used to make ritualistic and sacrificial objects. The most popular color then was green. In the 2nd century, white jade with a brown tinge became popular, followed by pure white jade in the 1st century. By the 18th century the newer form of jade, jadeite was introduced to the Qing dynasty through trade, from Burma.
Who Wore Jade in Ancient China?
Jade has always been a more highly-priced gem as compared to gold and silver ever since Ancient China. In the Neolithic era, the gem was mostly used to make tools but from the earliest dynasties, the gem became a symbol of status and was only worn by emperors, nobles, and government officials.
Given the association of royalty and high status, commoners were unable to acquire it. So, you could only find nobles with them, and even in their death, they would be buried in with their jade. This is because the stone was believed to have magical powers that protected the bodies from decaying. Some were even buried in suits made entirely of jade and gold string. Again, because the suits were costly to make and took a long time to compete, only those with massive wealth like the emperors were able to afford it.
In later dynasties, that is the Ming and Qing dynasties, the stone began being used to make ornaments, antiquities, and vessels. The designs and shapes were borrowed from earlier times in China. Therefore, the stone transitioned from being ritualistic tools to ornaments and dragon or human-shaped sculptures seen even today.
How Was Jade Carved in Ancient China?
Jade is said to be a very smooth but firm stone that’s difficult to cut through or curve. Even while mining, it was difficult to break the stone away from the quarry. Miners at the time would have to light a fire underneath the stone and then pour cold water over it immediately after the stone got hot. This rapid change in temperature technique was said to gradually break the wooden edges of the stone until it fell off. But because this method ended up destroying the jade as well, the best extraction method was said to be from the pebbles and boulders found in the river.
When it came to cutting, the same method that is used in the modern-day was the same technique used in earlier times as well. The fact that jade was so tough, the only way to cut through it was by using something tougher than it. In earlier times the quartz a mineral with a higher hardness level was the preferred tool. In the Neolithic time, the Hongshan culture, using this mineral made four tools that they used to curve and mold jade. The four tools were shallow drills, slow rotating disks, awls, and string. The string was what was used to shape the jade in its raw state, slice it into flat disks, and sometimes cut slits on it if needed. The slow rotating disk on the other hand was what prepared the jade for drilling techniques. The awls and shallow drills were used to delicately puncture holes on the jade disks. The shallow drills were responsible for making larger holes while the awls were responsible for making smaller ones.
What Does Jade Symbolize in Chinese Culture?
In Chinese culture, jade is highly valuable because it is considered a luck stone. Another name for it is the “Stone of Heaven”. Based on the great philosopher Confucius, who once wrote that jade was like a virtue whose brightness symbolized heaven.
According to the Chinese, Jade symbolizes good luck, success, and prosperity. It also represents immortality and renewal. In Chinese, the symbol for jade ‘Yu’ closely resembles the symbol for emperor ‘Wang’. As a result, on top of the fact that only nobles would wear it, jade was considered a royal gemstone.
Xu Shen, a scholar from the Han dynasty, once compared the qualities of the Jade to the five virtues. He said the stone’s benevolence was in its brilliance and luster. Its Wisdom is in the tranquility of its tones. Its Honesty was in its translucent appearance and its Integrity was in the fact that it could be broken but not twisted.
Given the importance of Jade to the Chinese, over the years it has been included in many of their proverbs and idioms. For example, a Chinese saying, “As clear as ice and as clean as jade” is used to describe a person who is considered noble and pure. A jade woman is said to mean a beautiful woman or a lady.
Why Is Jade Important in China?
Jade is important to the Chinese, because of what it represents and the fact that it is ingrained in their culture. It represents social values respected in China through the five virtues that Xu Shen once described. It is also rare and fascinating to look at.
Aside from its beauty, the Chinese also value jade for its medicinal purposes. As per tradition, the Chinese used to place a green jade in the mouth of the recently deceased, because the green jade was culturally seen to represent the heart. In ancient China, healers made an elixir by mixing powdered jade and water. They believed that it strengthened the body and prolonged life. They also believed that taking the elixir before death would prevent the body from decaying.
What Did the Chinese Use Jade For?
A lot of what was made from jade in earlier times still have unclear purposes, other than they looked like ritualistic objects. During the Neolithic period, jade was mainly curved into large rectangular tablets that replicated tools and weapons, which were later discovered in tools. The ceremonial ax is one of the common objects from these tiles. It was made of thin rectangular jades with a single hole.
During the Shang dynasty, the stone was used to make chimes and seals for orifices of the body when being buried. Another common object from this time was a ritualistic cup made from jade. It was a circular tube on the inside and square-shaped on the outside with small circle decorations. Bi was another ritualistic jade object believed to have been used during the Shang and Zhou dynasty and was placed on the waist of the chest of the dead. Other objects found in tombs that date back to this period are knives, combs, and miniature statues of humans, animals, and mythical creatures, all made of jade and each had single holes.
By the 8th century, jade curving skills had greatly improved and you would find, round or flat plaques of jade with animal figurines carved into them. These plaques were popularly used as combs, hairpins, or pendants. This continued for many of the centuries to come. Even today, there are no human figurines and miniature animal or mythical creature sculptures being made. Jade is now also being used to make jewelry and ornaments as well as chopsticks and other things like inkstones.
Even today, jade is still held in high esteem as the most beautiful and highly desired gemstone. The fact that this is true globally and not just in China, means that jade will continue being a highly valued gem in many years to come. Its value currently is compared to the value given to the rarest diamonds in the US.