Over thousands of years jade has become completely ingrained in Chinese culture, art and history and denotes status, symbolizes love, virtue, beauty, grace and purity. It is not only used to create fine objects but was also crafted into grave goods for the imperial family.
Jade mines in China have long been depleted, but the association and love for this stone endures with the Chinese till this day. Though prized by other civilizations throughout history, no other culture can rival China for the richness and intricacy of the jade carvings found there.
The term jade is actually used to encompass two distinct stones nephrite and jadeite. Both these stones share many qualities, but jadeite has a wider range of colors. The hardness and brittleness of jade requires great skill to craft, however great intricacy can be accomplished with it. Coupled with its high luster and translucency, gemstone grade jade has always been highly sought after.
The Chinese have been working jade since the Neolithic period. Discs and tubes made of jade found in Neolithic graves are the earliest indication of this stone’s association with the otherworldly. By 200 B.C. the stone was established as an aid to immortality. In the Han dynasty, emperors were buried in jade gowns and jade cicadas were placed on dead kings’ tongues to prevent decomposition and safeguard chi or energy. During the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. to 1050 B.C), jade was used for personal adornment by kings, as well as for utilitarian and ceremonial objects. Jade knives, daggers and objects imbued with symbolic meaning like scepters have been found in tombs. Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty however, funerary practices changed and by the time the Ming and Qing dynasties rolled around, in the 16th century, the stone had became primarily used to craft objects d’art.
In the minds of many Chinese the gem of both Heaven and Earth has always been empowered with magical properties. It was considered a guardian against illness and evil spirits, which is why even babies in China are given a tiny jade bangle to wear to ward off bad luck. The gem is often referred to as a live stone due to its propensity to change color. Many believe that if the stone likes the wearer, it will grow a deeper, darker shade of green. A lot of jade pieces do indeed change color over time, and believers who wear it for protection and good luck attribute this to the absorption of bad chi that would otherwise have affected the wearer. Jade is also supposed to improve blood circulation and calm the mind.
The lush milky stone is seen as a metaphor for human virtues because of its hardness, durability and beauty. Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, famously said “the wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice; the pure and prolonged sound, which it gives forth, when one strikes it, represents music. Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth. Used alone without ornamentation it represents chastity. The price that the entire world attaches to it represents the truth. To support these comparisons, the Book of Verse says: “When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade.”‘
Today jade is still worn due to its auspiciousness but it is speedily finding its place in the fashion and jewelry industries. Modern pieces of jade combine both cutting edge design and cultural references to its ancient heritage.The popularity of the gem speaks for itself with a single strand, imperial green jadeite, bead necklace fetching over $9 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong.
Thus saying jade is merely special in Chinese culture would be a massive understatement, as the Chinese proverb goes “gold has a value; jade is invaluable.”
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Dylan of The Gryphon’s Nest