The Chinese know all about the joys of jade. They treasure it as though it were gold or diamonds. It not only has financial worth; it is also highly symbolic and has been processed for many different uses in the country for at least 12,000 years.
In China, jade is as precious as gold or diamonds are in the west. But it also has deeper, more symbolic aspects for the Chinese. Jade is said to be formed from the bone marrow of Pan Gu, everyone’s first ancestor at the creation of the world.
Archaeologists know that jade has been used in the country for at least 12,000 years, since an example dating that far back has been found in Haicheng at the site of the Immortal Cave.
In the 5th century BC, Confucius recognized it as symbolizing eleven virtues dear to the Chinese: purity; intelligence; justice; music; loyalty; sincerity; heaven; earth; chastity; and truth. Nowadays jade gifts may be intended to symbolize beauty, nobility, perfection, constancy, power, morality, grace, dignity or immortality.
When the ruler of Zhangshan State, Lin Shang, died in 113 BC, he was buried in a suit made of nearly 2,500 pieces of jade. He clearly wanted to make sure of his own immortality beyond this world. Sometimes jade is referred to as The imperial Gem.
You know you are well thought of if you receive a gift of jade; you know that the giver cares about you and wants the best for you. What the gift symbolizes can often be understood from the pattern worked on it. Examples include a lotus meaning holiness; fish meaning wealth; a bottle meaning safety; or bamboo meaning respect. If you offer someone some jade craft with one of these patterns, it could mean that you recognize the characteristic in him or her, or that you hope and trust that the jade will bring it to the receiver of your gift.
Throughout history, the Chinese passion for jade has never waned, although fashions of use have changed. Pieces of jade have waxed and waned as sacrificial vessels, tools and utensils, musical instruments and ornaments for buildings and gardens, or personal jewellery.
Jade comes from one of two minerals, nephrite, which is found in areas of China and is traditional Chinese jade, and jadeite, which has latterly been imported, usually from Myanmar (Burma). You can tell the difference between them when they are polished because nephrite jade has an oily look, while jadeite, which is the harder mineral, looks glassy. The latter is the more popular at present, and therefore the more valuable.
People usually think of jade as a green stone. While it is true that emerald green jade is the most valuable, the gem can also be found in other colors, mainly white, grey, topaz, and even black.
Xinjiang Province, near the boundaries with Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, and Kazakstan, is the most well-known area of China for jade mining. The nephrite from Hetian is perhaps the hardest, as it has been known to leave scratches on glass. The Forbidden City in Beijing houses an enormous piece of this jade, carved to depict a mythical scene when Yu the Great helped a multitude to control a flood.
The economy of the county of Zhenping, in Henan province, is largely based on jade artefact production. People come there from all over the country and all over the world to buy jade. Because the county contributes such a high percentage of jade exports to the economy of the country, the Ministry of Agriculture and the State Council Economic Development Research Center has named it The Home of Jade.
Of course, jade is not only mined and processed or exported in China and Myanmar. India also has deposits of nephrite, as does Alaska and Canada. Elsewhere in the Americas, some US states, plus Guatemala are known for jadeite, while in Europe Italy has both nephrite and jadeite mines, Russia has jadeite, and Poland, Switzerland and the Netherlands mine nephrite.
As jade retains its value, many people invest in collections. Unfortunately, this attracts the unscrupulous, who treat poor examples of jade with chemicals to alter its colour and make-up. Collectors need to learn how to recognize good pieces of jade, or to have an expert on-side when purchasing.
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