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China’s fascination with jade has an 8,000-year history


Under the hammer: the nephrite jade ‘washer’ that sold at auction

In his Book of the Marvels of the World, Marco Polo described Xinjiang’s Hotan as a land of milk and honey. The oasis town was part of a province nourished by a waterway remarkable for “chalcedony and jasper galore” in its river bed, the Italian remarked. These stones were “carried for sale to Cathay where they fetch great prices,” Polo wrote.

The Venetian was describing what we know today as jade, or in Chinese, yu. Washed down from the Kunlun Mountains by the Yurungkash River, these stones are still one of of Xinjiang’s leading exports, with prices that have soared from just a few hundred yuan per kilogramme in the 1980s to over Rmb1 million ($144,099) per kg today, according to the Xinjiang Gem Association.

Jade’s inflating value correlates directly with the rising affluence in many of China’s coastal cities. Pu Hongtao, a dealer at the Hotan Bazaar, is now making Rmb10,000 a day selling jade to customers through WeChat and online. “Look, more than 13,000 people are following me on this livestream platform,” Pu told Xinhua this month.

The Chinese fascination with jade dates back to Neolithic times. Traces of the stone were found in excavation sites linked to the Xinglongwa culture, which emerged between 6200-5400 BC in Inner Mongolia’s Chifeng area. Archaeologists say that the jade was used to fashion ornaments or ritual objects. Jade earrings, for example, were believed to be a medium for hearing the voices of the gods.

The Hongshang culture, which also existed in Chifeng but a thousand years later, took the craftsmanship to the next level. Their artefacts show great advances in sculpting, as well as the jadeware that was reserved for the burials of revered people. The higher the social status of the body in the tomb, the greater the number of accompanying jade pieces.

The special status of jade is evident in the rich associations it has inspired over the millennia that followed the Hongshang period. Around 2,000 years ago the term ‘Jade Emperor’ (Yuhuang Dadi) began appearing in written texts to describe the heavenly god. Approximately 1,700 years later the hero in China’s most iconic novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, Jia Baoyu, is named as the earthly incarnation of the “precious jade” left over from the goddess Nüwa’s patchwork for the firmament.

In the ancient psyche jade was associated with four key Confucian virtues: benevolence, righteousness, wisdom and propriety. When Qin Shi Huang unified China and became the first emperor it was thus strongly symbolic he carved his imperial seal out of the famous jade disc He Shi Bi (an idiom from the Warring States period reveals that this much desired object was worth “as much as several cities”).

Jade’s Chinese character is 玉, which, minus one stroke, resembles the character for ‘king’.

“This is really the finest Chinese art ever,” is the verdict of Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based collector of jade carvings, who spoke to WiC. He likens their importance to marble sculptures from Greek and Roman times. The material used, nephrite, is harder than marble. In fact, he says it is harder than any metal, and takes great effort to work and polish.

In chemical terms, nephrite is a silicate of calcium and magnesium, which delivers a slightly greasy sheen. It earns its durability from interlocking fibrous crystals, while its colours are dependent on its iron content (the less iron, the lighter the jade). The most prized variants are those with a “mutton fat” hue or an opalescent whiteness mainly found in Xinjiang’s Hotan (which helps to explains why the Yurungkash is also known as the White Jade River).

Such composition sets nephrite apart from jadeite, a close cousin often generally classed as yu even though it is a silicate of sodium and aluminium and made up of grainier crystals. Also known as feicui, jadeite comes in all sorts of bright colours (most notably – and famously – emerald green) and has a translucent quality. However, it is not traditionally linked with the finest art. Most of its supply comes from Myanmar’s Kachin region (which borders China’s Yunnan province to the north) and it tends to be processed into jewellery or amulets.

Bao points out that the distinction between nephrite and jadeite only came to be more understood in the nineteenth century through the work of German sinologists including Berthold Laufer.

However, some of the boundary has blurred again and the fullest appreciation of nephrite is generally restricted to scholarly types.

In contrast jadeite has enjoyed rising acclaim, in part thanks to an “imperial aura” linked to Empress Dowager Cixi’s well-documented obsession with the glassy gemstone.

When most people refer to jade in China today they are more likely to be thinking of the jadeite variety. However, museum curators and the more informed collectors are primarily interested in the older works, fashioned from the nephrite stone.

“There are two fronts to China’s affection for jade. First comes the love of the stone, and the eagerness to preserve it. That gave rise to a carving culture and artisanship that is meant to enhance the appeal of the stone,” Bao told WiC, noting that the design of a jade sculpture is often contingent on the quality of the raw material.

This belief in the transformative power of craftsmanship is encapsulated in the idiom “xiabuyanyu (瑕不掩瑜)”, meaning “imperfections can’t mar the beauty of jade”, as well as the old saying “yubuzuo, buchengqi (玉不琢,不成器)”, or “unless cut, a piece of jade forms no article of virtue”.

Craftsmanship in jade reached its pinnacle during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when artisans worked with a variety of artistic techniques including gold-and silver-smithing. Its subject matter also widened to include scenes of everyday life such as A Beauty in the Shade of a Tung Tree (1773), a valuable carving that depicts a girl holding flowers outside a courtyard house.

These artistic achievements had much to do with the influence of Emperor Qianlong, a jade aficionado who penned 800 poems on the stone and collected over 10,000 pieces of antique jade. Under his rule, extensive resources were devoted to the jade workers of the royal production house. The emperor’s subjugation of Xinjiang was said to have been motivated by his desire to secure jade supplies. As a consequence at least 2 tonnes of Hotan nephrite made its way to the Qing court each year from the 25th year of his reign, according to Yu Ming, another jade expert (Qianlong was on the throne for 61 years, and even after abdicating still wielded power till his death in 1799).

The classical traditions of jade carving were already under threat as the Qing Dynasty gave way to first the Republic and then Mao Zedong’s revolutionary regime. His Cultural Revolution – which lasted between 1966-1976 – marked a decisive point for craftsmanship in the stone too. It effectively created a chasm that separated younger artisans from centuries of wisdom on how to handles this special material. “They began to treat [jade] just as wood, steel, concrete, brass – any other sculpture medium,” laments Bao.

Today it is genuine archaic jade, due to its rarity, that is the new darling in the marketplace. Prices for the best pieces have surged by more than 20 times in the same number of years. The boom is even thought to have prompted some high profile burglaries in the UK. In 2012 gangs broke into museums at universities in Durham and Cambridge, stealing 20 jade items worth at least £57 million ($73.2 million).

“The market for jade has been growing strongly in recent years with ever higher prices achieved,” Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s chairman of Asian Art, Europe and Americas, told WiC. This month a piece from Qianlong’s reign was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London. The 50cm washer – made from jade from Hotan – came from an English private collection and sold for £730,000. The piece was last seen in public at exhibitions by the Royal Academy of Arts in London in the 1930s. “The washer subsequently fell out of sight until this year, having passed down through the same family by descent,” said Howard-Sneyd. The acquirer was an Asian collector bidding by phone.

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