Soul of stone – The divine jade

By Audrey Ronning Topping

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

“Jade is Heaven.”

— “I Ching,” the “Book of Changes”
(China’s oldest book of wisdom)

What is the magic that sets jade apart from all other gemstones and causes men to speak of it in the language of legends and myth?

To the Chinese, jade is more precious than gold or diamonds, for these are of the material realm while jade is of the spirit. The unique stone was chosen by the Chinese as the vehicle for communication with the unseen powers of the universe, as a charm against disease and evil spirits and as an emblem of imperial authority. It is believed to embody qualities of solar light and commune with the powers in Heaven. And if you don’t believe this, don’t buy a piece of Heaven.

One legend tells how the Storm God grasped the rainbow with one hand and forged jade axes with the other to throw down to man, who was the helpless prey of all wild animals on Earth. Man perceived the origin of his precious gift and thereafter called jade, “the Stone of Heaven.” Another legend claims that when China was invaded by the Tartar hordes, the Imperial Dragon shed tears that were petrified into jade. Still other myths hold that the propitious air of Heaven and Earth is always condensed into jade.

Jade is literally China’s crown jewel. Whatever its origin, jade has inspired people for centuries. Jade objects found in excavations of royal tombs have been analyzed and proven to be part of an evolution that had its beginning around 5000 B.C., during the Neolithic period. Some 2,400 years ago, Confucius said of jade: “Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents Heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountains and of water, represents the Earth. Used alone without ornamentation it represents the truth.”

The belief in the mystical aspect of jade prevailed as the stone became a popular medium among carvers. It developed into a major art form in later dynasties, including the Tang (618-907), Song (960-1179), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). Most impressive is the fact that jade was used not only to create exquisite jewelry, belt buckles, vases and handles for a scholar’s desk, but it began to be carved into large scale objets d’art to be enjoyed from a strictly aesthetic point of view. The emphasis on aesthetics is well-represented in jade excavated from the imperial tombs dating from the Neolithic period.

Pi Yu and fei-ts’ui

There are two kinds of jade. One stone is known by the Chinese name “pi yu” or nephrite, the other is “fei-ts’ui” or jadeite. The two types are held in equal esteem and are similar in appearance. They have much in common, but each has its own distinctive properties. Nephrite is a silicate of magnesium with a fibrous texture. It was mentioned in China’s early 5,000-year-old written history as one of the world’s toughest stones. Jadeite (the jewel jade) is a harder stone composed of silicate of aluminum microcrystalline. It was discovered much later than nephrite in the Kochin hills of northern Burma (the country now known as Myanmar). Carvers began using jadeite in China about 1785, but it took another hundred years before it was fully recognized as jade and treated with the same respect as nephrite.

Jadeite, therefore, cannot claim antiquity like nephrite. It is evaluated by the inherent quality of the stone and how artistically it is carved. Fine jade has always been rare and in its most highly valued hue, pure emerald green, it was used to create the finest jewelry for China’s aristocrats and is still used today. It is rarer than the finest nephrite but, alas, easier to imitate.

In every hue

Both stones in their pure form are colorless. The color comes from the presence of other minerals. Perhaps more than any other quality, the color of jadeite distinguishes it from nephrite. In general, the colors of jadeite tend to be vivid and clear. They contrast with the soapy, heavier, almost aged-looking hues of most pieces of nephrite.

Jade appears in an infinite variety of shades. There are nine classical colors that correspond to the seven colors of the rainbow, plus black and white, but between them exists an endless spectrum of tones. The Chinese, in an effort to name them, have called upon almost every known animal, mineral and vegetable. They have given the colors such names as mutton fat, chicken bone, shrimp, kingfisher, betel nut, ink, chalk, lavender, sandalwood, spinach and orange peel. Other names conjure up beautiful poetic images like moss-entangled-in-snow, spring-water-green, and sky reflected-in clear-water. To the ancient Chinese, these hues were more than colors. They were symbols of nature’s basic elements, of the universe and the influence of planets.

Against a woman’s flesh

Prices of the jade are rising steadily as the supply diminishes and more of the world learns to appreciate the varied stone. Pearl S. Buck, the author of “The Good Earth,” wrote in her book “My Several Worlds:” “Jade is a possession to be cherished by anyone who can find it or buy it or steal it. Chinese women ask for jade ornaments for their hair. And old men keep in their closed palms a piece of cold jade, so smooth that it seems soft to the touch. Rich men buy jades instead of putting their money in the banks, for jade grows more beautiful with age. The poorest courtesan has her bit of jade to hang in her ears or use in a hairpin and the most successful and popular actresses wear jade instead of diamonds, because jade is the most sumptuous jewel against a woman’s flesh.”

And it gives her an air of eternity. In ancient China when people “joined their ancestors,” all the orifices of their bodies were stopped with jade for purity. Jade was believed to have preservative and protective qualities that would prevent deterioration. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the bodies of emperors and wealthy aristocrats were encased in jade burial suits, constructed from thousands of square plates of precious jade threaded together by gold and silver wires or silk ribbons, depending on the status of the diseased. The burial suits were first documented in 320, but most archaeologists thought they were mythic. Their existence, however, was confirmed in 1968, when two jade suits made of 2,498 plaques of solid jade threaded with 2½ pounds of gold wire were discovered in the Han Dynasty tomb of Prince Liu Sheng and Princess Dau Wan. Burial suits were believed to be an armor for immortality, but only crumpled skeletons were found inside.

Yet the jade suits were intact and are still being exhibited worldwide, thus bringing a form of immortality to the royal couple – and jade’s admirers.

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