Sunday, 19 June 2011

Xinjiang - the magical qualities of Jade

The town of Hotan (Chinese Hetian) lies in the south of the Taklamakan desert and was a well-known stop on the southern route of the Silk Road.  It was also famous for the jade deposits of the areas two main rivers, the Karakash (Black Jade) and Yurungkash (White Jade).  Ancient Chinese societies placed an incredibly high value on jade and developed a passion for this precious stone that is comparable to our modern obsession with diamonds and gold.  Jade pebbles and fashioned pieces became the currency of the Silk Road and, more importantly for the history of Xinjiang, was a real driver for trade between China and the people on its western borders.

So what is Jade?

Jade vase (19th century)
Jade is a stone which can be found in rivers, in the form of pebbles or rocks.  It's an incredibly hard stone and difficult to fashion which, no doubt, played a part in increasing its value, as the level of workmanship required to turn jade into jewellery is quite high.  There are two main types of jade: nephrite jade is the more common kind and the type found in the Karakash and Yurungkash rivers.  Jadeite is less common and, as I understand it, can be found in volcanic areas, as it's somehow formed from volcanic rock. 

We mostly associate jade with the colour green, but it can come in a variety of colours and there is a milky white jade from China which is incredibly precious and rare.  Nephrite and Jadeite is found all over the world - Mexico, Guatemala, Canada, Switzerland, Burma and New Zealand have all been major sources of the world's jade deposits.

The Importance of Jade to the Chinese

Jade Burial suit by dericafox
Jade has been a constant in Chinese history, as a symbol of great wealth.  The radical Yu in Chinese word for jade ying yu, has come to mean any precious stone.  Jade was believed to have magical properties and was used to create intriguing burial suits, like the ones found in Mancheng, which are made up of rectangular pieces of jade, held together with silk and designed to cover the entire body.  The Ancient Chinese believed that jade could preserve the human body in death and stop if from decaying. 

Chinese folklore retains stories of the Jade Emperor, who was the ruler of heaven, earth and hell and was one of the most important gods in traditional Chinese beliefs.  Because of its (almost) unbreakable nature, jade was first used to create weapons and later, when the wars were lost or won, it was fashioned into ornamental jewellery which would be worn by the victors (or, more likely, their wives and concubines!)

Understanding the precious Nature of Stones

I must admit, when you sit down and think about it - whether it's jade or diamonds or rubies - you have to wonder why we attach so much importance to bits of rock and stone?  Surely the Stone Age is over and we have the modern wonders of plastic, aluminium and steel?  I guess the value of precious stones is as status symbols and works of art?  The materials they're made from are of limited functional use.  After all, even the world's greatest paintings, Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Leonardo Da Vinci's Joconde/Mona Lisa are nothing more than oil and paper!  Diamonds and jade aren't edible (always an important factor in the value I personally attach to the world around me!).  They can't give you shelter or keep you warm at night!  They don't necessarily bring the bearer love or happiness, yet somehow, in this crazy world of ours, we have managed to transform these bits of rock and stone into valuable commodities that people will die for!

Jade around the World

Jadeite was also believed, by the Mayan civilisations of Central America, to have magical qualities.  The Motagua River in Guatemala is the only known source of jadeite in the Americas and the rarity of jade elevated it to the level of status symbol in Mayan society.  The Maya placed beads of jade in the mouths of their dead, as they believed the stone would hold the spirit of the person, once they had died.  Different colours of jade were important and the exact role that this stone played in Mayan religious ceremonies is something of a mystery to modern researchers, giving Guatemalan jade an added magical quality that appeals to the curious modern buyer!

Hei matau by diveofficer
The south island of New Zealand is called Te Wai Pounamu by the Maori people, which means something like 'the land of greenstone (jade) water', greenstone being the local English-language name for jade.  Jade is only found in the south island and was also highly valued by the Maori, being given as gifts or passed down as part of your inheritance.  They are considered to be taonga or 'cultural treasure' and are often fashioned into neck pendants, like the Hei matau which is a beautiful carving in the shape of a fish hook. 

Jade Goody, Jagger et al

Jade has also become popular as a first name - more so for women in Europe and the West, but also for men in other cultures.  Probably the most famous Jade in England was Jade Goody, the Big Brother contestant who was loved and hated in equal measure by the British public.  She had a fascinating life that ended at the very young age of 27.  She died of cervical cancer in 2009. 

Another famous Jade is Jade Jagger, the daughter of Mick and Bianca Jagger.  Interestingly, Jade Jagger now designs jewellery, which seems quite apt for someone of her name!  Younger readers will know all about Jaden Smith, Will Smith's son, who is a famous musician and actor, friend of Justin Bieber and impossibly famous for someone who was born in 1998 (darn I'm feeling old right now!)

The meaning of the word Jade

It might surprise most Jades and Jadens to know that their name comes from the Spanish word for jade, piedra de ijada, which means 'loin stone' - jade being the loin bit.  Europeans believed that jade cured illnesses related to loins and kidneys, but I can't help noticing the linguistic similarity to China and East Asia, where Jade Gate and Jade Stalk are euphenisms in erotic literature for parts of the female and male body!  There's no doubt about it - Jade is definitely sexy! 

All that glisters is not Jade

Jade Dragon from the British Museum (London) 

A problem for modern buyers is to distinguish authentic jade/greenstones from the many jade substitutes that are on the market.  The quality of jade is not regulated in the same way that diamonds are and even the most expensive jewellers sell 'fake jade', which is often a type of glass, for similar prices to the real thing.  Chinese jade is also incredibly difficult to authenticate, even for experienced antiquarians.  The Chinese tradition of imitating art, as a form of respect for ancestral culture, means that jade ornaments from the 18th or 19th century will often look exactly the same as those of the 12th or 13th century.  So if this blogpost has inspired you to rush out and buy some of these precious stones, get an expert to look at the stones before you invest your hard-earned cash.  To paraphrase William Shakespeare, all that glisters is not (necessarily) jade!

Image credits:

The image of the Jade vase is from one of the Black Country museums in England and you can see this exhibit by visiting the museum or checking out its website.  I found this image on their flickr profile.

The photo of the Jade Burial suit is by flickuser dericafox who is an astronomer from Pennsylvania State University.  You can see more of dericafox's photos at

The image of the two Hei matau was taken by flickuser diveofficer - they show two contrasting pendents, one old and one new and I like the way the colours balance against each other.  You can see more of diveofficer's photos at his photostream on

The image of the Jade Dragon is by native New-Yorker craft*ology who is a librarian and jewellery designer.  You can see more of her jewellery at her website

Thanks to all of the above for sharing your images on flickr using the Creative Commons License. 
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