We are pleased to have our guest blogger, CC, back again to talk about "What is Jade?" and how the concept has changed from the traditional Chinese to modern era.
Hi! It’s CC again.
Today, I will begin with a question for you. What is “Jade”?
The word comes from an ancient Spanish word “Piedra de Ijada”, which appeared first in 16th century medical papers in Spain. “Ijada” originally referred to jadeite jade mined in Mexico, which were ground into powder and mixed with water as medication for cure of groin pain by the Mexican locals. The word “Ijada” later became “Jade” and is commonly used in the western world.
[ A nephrite jade finial from the Yuan Dynasty c. A.D. 1271 – A.D. 1368 ]
Then, what is “Jade” from a Chinese point of view?
We do have a very broad concept of jade in the Chinese culture and the traditional jade carving industry. It embraces a vast quantity of materials. We call jade “Yu” in Chinese.
Our ancient scholar Mr. Xu Shen in the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D.25 – A.D.220) defined jade as beautiful rocks, metaphorically having the five virtues of man, namely: benevolence, loyalty, wisdom, courage and honesty. It follows that in the ensuing period of time, Chinese and the traditional jade carving industry define jade in a very broad sense.
Jades are beautiful rocks. They must colourful, hard and durable, lustrous (after polishing), having a uniform and compact structure, and when they are being tapped lightly give off a clear and crispy sound. These rocks, whether in the raw form or after they are made into ornamental pieces, are adorable and their beauty generally well appreciated. They should not be in abundance and thus they are pricey in value, too
Specifically the traditional Chinese jades embrace:
- Colourful and extra hard gems including diamond, sapphire and ruby.
- Some non-mineral/non-rock materials including coral, pearl and amber.
- Serpentine stone, malachite, agate, rock crystal, lapis, turquoise, rose quartz and amethyst.
The list is not exhaustive but demonstrates the wide variety of materials classified as jade in the broad sense in the Chinese jade culture. It is also interesting to note that soapstone, no matter how precious the type is, had never been regarded as jade. This is probably due to the fact that they are carved by very sharp knives by skilled carvers but not by the traditional jade carving treadle lathe operated by the jade craftsmen. And thus they have never been regarded as jade by the jade industry.
The modern concept of Chinese jade is much stricter. It only embraces 2 kinds of rock materials, one is jadeite and the other is nephrite. Nowadays jade collectors only pursue these two types of jade.
[ A landing dragon of a jade plaque from the late Yuan Dynasty c. A.D. 1271 - A.D. 1368 ]
Nephrite, mined from Xinjiang province, has a very long history of being carved into jade pieces. The unearthing of the Fu Hao Tomb which dated around the 13th Century B.C. when rudimentary Chinese characters first appeared, uncovered 755 pieces of jade articles and many of them were made of nephrite. It has been pursued and adored by the royal families, noble classes, scholars and wealthy people throughout the history of China. It was seen as a sign of power, wealth, culture and myth for a very long period of time and was regarded as the king of all jades until jadeite rises into power to challenge its position in late Qing Dynasty (A.D.1644 – A.D.1911).
Jadeite had been imported from Burma since late Ming Dynasty (A.D.1368 – A.D.1644). It is generally believed that initially white jadeite was used to imitate nephrite because of the high value of white nephrite. Unlike nowadays, the precious green or lavender coloured parts were discarded during carving.
Jadeite was never popular amongst the royal families, scholars and the common rich people in the early Qing or mid-Qing Dynasty. It wasn’t until Empress Cixi came into reign around 1861 that jadeite became fashionable. Jadeite was her favourite jade. The court officials and the common people therefore followed suit. Jadeite is still Chinese women’s favourite jewelry.
I shall talk about the properties of nephrite in my next post. See you all then.