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The Heavenly Stone
by Valerie Sartor
2008-04-17 08:47:30
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“Why are the Chinese putting jade onto the Olympic medals?” I asked my colleague Wu Nanlan as we sat in a weekly planning meeting.

Raising her elegant eyebrows she gaped at me in surprise. “Haven’t you ever heard the Chinese saying, ‘Gold is valuable but jade is priceless’?” she replied. “China is the place where jade is the most respected. Even today what we call jade - “yu” is known as the royal gem. The character for yu is only one stroke different for the Chinese character wang, or emperor. And originally the small stroke at the bottom, differentiating jade from emperor, was simply a pronunciation mark as opposed to a semantic difference.”

“Sure, it’s beautiful, but I don’t wear it,” interrupted Wang Wei Wei. “It breaks; I prefer silver, and of course, diamonds.” She stretched out her slender hand, exposing a beautiful diamond ring.

“Maybe because you are engaged to that rich foreign boyfriend your traditional way of thinking has altered,” retorted Wu Nanlan. “But jade is actually the toughest natural stone in the world, although it is not the hardest. And the Chinese were carving sophisticated instruments using jade long before they developed writing or cultivated silk.”

“Yeah, many ancient stories and myths exist in our history concerning jade,” said Dickie Wang, “but I like it because the stone is cool and soft, like a woman’s skin. It’s very sensual.” He sighed dramatically, adding softly, “My wife’s skin is like jade.”

“My mother told me that she wears jade for her health,” Wang Wei Wei said, looking round the table at us. “She said that jade imparts good health: if worn a long time it increases vitality and promotes long life, and controls her hypertension. It’s even supposed to cure VD!”

“Well,” I answered, “The English word “jade” derives from the Spanish phrase “piedra de ijada” – loincloth. Ancient Meso-Americans, just like the Chinese, recognized long ago that wearing jade around the lower torso helped cure kidney troubles. The other word for jade - nephrite – comes from the Greek word nephros - kidney. So maybe your mom’s correct.”

Dickie Wang nodded. “Jade is also supposed to have supernatural powers. Touching jade and wearing made a person safe, blessed with the power to resist evil influences and avoid evil ghosts and spirits. Ancient Taoists even believed that jade was edible and could keep one immortal. In fact, during earlier dynasties emperors and royalty were buried in complete suits of jade that looked like those suits of armor medieval European knights wore. Moreover, all their orifices were plugged up with jade to protect their qi, or body energy.”

“Pretty wild funeral clothes,” quipped Wang Wei Wei, grinning.

“My family is from Yunnan; we are jade traders, so I respect this stone very much,” began Wu Nanlan. “But all Chinese revere jade, in the past and in the present. It symbolizes imperial power as well as beauty and longevity. A famous piece of jade is part of Chinese legend: Long ago, a courageous common man named Bian He found a marvelous piece of jade, a priceless treasure. But it was hidden under a layer of worthless stones in the mountain. He was afraid that he might ruin it; he dared not remove it. But this loyal citizen dedicated the jade to the King of the State of Chu, naming it after him. The king could not discern the wondrous stone; he was furious with Bian He for using his imperial name in vain. He ordered Bian He’s legs cut off. Poor Bian He cried for three days and three nights! Later a new king took power and the jade was cut and delivered to him. This king was awed by the beauty and delicacy of the stone. It became a national treasure by the name of ‘Heshi Bi.’”

“That’s fact, not legend,” Wang Wei Wei stated. “That stone is part of Chinese history: it was so precious that it became a source of conflict for about five hundred years, with kings fighting over it during China’s Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period.”

“Now, with the upcoming Olympics, jade will once again become famous because athletes will compete for medals made with gold and precious Qinghai jade,” I said.

“Very apropos,” Wu Nanlan asserted. “In China jade is the standard by which great men, governments and beautiful women are judged. The stone is lovely, tough and unique; it truly reflects China and our respect for the Olympic spirit.”

“Indeed,” said Dickie Wang. “Understanding jade’s symbolism can assist foreigners in understanding China’s history and values. We have a proverb: turn weapons into peace with gifts of jade. The Olympic jade represents China’s peaceful intentions toward the entire world. That’s very important in this nuclear age, don’t you think?”

But the Chinese have no monopoly on this remarkable stone. All over the world, for thousands of years, mankind has felt attracted to jade. Many myths from all parts of the planet encompass jade. During the pre-Columbian period, the Mayas, Aztecs and Toltecs of Central America revered jade more than gold. And for thousands of years the Maoris in New Zealand prized jade, using it to carve weapons and religious instruments. Even in ancient Egypt jade was admired as the stone symbolizing love, inner peace, balance and harmony. In fact, many cultures outside of China throughout the ages have regarded jade as a lucky or protective stone.

Chinese creation myths say the Storm God had his hand on a rainbow and another hand on a jade axe. He gave the axe to humans as a survival gift. Thus, the Chinese received jade in many colors due to the rainbow and learned how to carve it into tools to defend themselves against wild animals. Other myths say that when the Mongolians invaded ancient China the people cried out for help and dragons came to their rescue by crying and spitting out jade.

In China jade has been associated with culture, religion and civilization. Known as the jewel that grants all desires in this world and in the next jade has been closely associated with religion and religious rites. It plays a part as a symbol in all kinds of social organizations and it is philosophically, for the Chinese and other Asian peoples today, a special kind of medium through which the forces of nature may exercise influence in all kinds of human activities.

Unsurprisingly, jade still reflects Chinese culture – both the past and the present, the good and the bad. Xinjiang, China’s remote northwestern province, is noted for the very finest type of jade, called “He tian yu”. Hetian (or Hotan or Khotan) was once an ancient, strategically important city along the Silk Road and the Jade Road, as well as the name for a nearby river.

In ancient times and to some extent today people simply go to the Hetian River to look for jade and picked up what is called “seed jade” – small rocks that have been polished smooth by the river water. The Chinese have a myth about this type of jade - it embodies the essence of yang, or masculine force. These stones attracts yin, or feminine force, so legends assert that the best way to find jade in the Hetian River is to set loose a bunch of naked young girls to wade in the water under the full moon.

When I was in Hetian in 2007 many little Muslim boys had pockets full of good quality stones ranging from red bloodstones to yellowish and green jade to the trademark white lustrous mutton fat jade. They were more than willing to sell me a handful of my choice very cheaply. A trip to Hetian will provide not just jade but also their famed carpets and wonderful Uighur lamb dishes.

Minority people along this ancient route are unlike any others you’ll find in China. Uighur, Khazakh and other Muslim ethnic minority folks are lively, passionate and friendly; as China modernizes these people, their culture, especially those who are still semi-nomadic, are fast disappearing.

And, along with other parts of China, the He Tian region is experiencing acute environmental distress. Hetian City actually has several nearby rivers where jade is found. Tourists can go jade hunting for themselves. Traditionally the Chinese feel that jade which comes out of a river is more valuable than jade that comes out of the mountainside – but this is not always technically true. Hetian nephrite is also mined in the nearby Kunlun Mountains located close to the Mongolian and Russian borders. Currently all kinds of Hetian jade, which boasts as the most plentiful in China, is being fast depleted.

According to an August 2006 article in the Asia Pacific News the environs around Hetian city has been seriously damaged from jade mining efforts. The article stated that 2,000 mechanical diggers working around the clock along a hundred kilometer stretch of the upper Yurungkax River that flows into the Kun Lun Mountains is being damaged. In 2006 alone authorities estimated that over 200,00 people flocked to the region seeking jade but other government bureaucrats have contested this figure, citing only 40,000 miners, with most of them being seasonal migrants. But an expert from Beijing University, Wang Shiqi, was quoted in the article. He said: “If the mass hunting continues like this, the river's Hotan Jade resources will disappear in five to six years. The river bed, which is hundreds of millions of years old, is undergoing unprecedented destruction.” Xinjiang produces from 250-300 tons of Hetian jade each year. In 2006 the price per kilogram of the best white Hetian jade was 12,500 US dollars. Like many other parts of China that have opened to capitalism Hetian is also booming and suffering. Heavy machinery and uncontrolled jade fever is destroying the environment and the ruins of an ancient civilization that dates back 2,000 years along the river, the article stated.

What more can be said? China’s reforms have brought jade mining to new levels of prosperity and environmental degradation. The strip mining of this wondrous stone, like the cancerous economic growth throughout China, mirrors the horrible imbalance of an outdated authoritarian regime claiming to be a socialist paradise.

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Asa2008-04-17 13:46:11
Great article!

I must also say that the medal design really is beautiful. I'll have to try and find on on eBay in September ;)

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