China’s Precious Stone

In this September issue we take a closer look at beautiful and magical jade that was China's royal gemstone, and is endowed with many symbolic qualities.

China's Precious Stone

Beautiful and magical, jade was China's royal gemstone, endowed with many symbolic qualities,

as Michael Newman discovers

The Chinese use the word 'yu' to describe jade, which is also a generic term symbolising something precious, in much the same way as we consider gold precious. Jade has been carved in China for about 6,000 years, since the Neolithic period.

What exactly is jade? It's a tricky question. Geologists divide it into two groups. The first is nephrite or 'soft' jade, a silicate of calcium and magnesium, which was the stone first carved by those ancients in China, and continued to be so until the 16th century. It was, and still is, primarily found in Rhotan and Yorkand in mountainous Western China. It's slightly softer than the other group, jadeite (true or 'hard' jade), which is a silicate of sodium and alumina. In the 16th century, true jade was imported from Burma and remains the main source to this day.

The difference between nephrite and jadeite is not easily apparent to either touch or sight and can only definitely be settled by chemical analysis or specific gravity. Nephrite is generally cheaper than jadeite and has the greatest range of colours - from white to black and including off-white/grey (mutton-fat jade), light to dark yellow, light to dark green (spinach jade), pink and even purple, blue and red - although the last three are rare.

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In China, the most reputable jade-producing area is Hetian in Xinjiang Province where the stone, which is extremely hard, could be found in huge pieces which were then elaborately carved. One of the largest was of a scene of Yu the Great pacifying a flood, which was completed in 1787. It weighed 5,350kg (11,795lbs) when completed and is now displayed in the Forbidden City.

Another form of jade, serpentine jade, which the Chinese call 'xiu yu', is semi-transparent or opaque, principally in shades of green (although it also comes in white, yellow and pink), and it is found mainly in Xiuyan County in Liaoning Province.

Since ancient times, the Chinese endowed jade with much religious and secular symbolism. A 17th-century book of ritual states its virtues as follows: 'If jade is highly valued, it is because, since very olden times, the wise have likened it to virtue. For them, the polish and the brilliancy of jade represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and its extreme hardness represent the sureness of the intelligence; its angles - they 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 colour 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. The price which all the world attaches to it represents the truth.'

The prehistoric jades, and indeed the work of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang dynasty (AD 618-906), can now only be seen in the world's great museums or in Bejing itself. Work from the three centuries of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) are still rare and expensive, whereas the works of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) are the more common period pieces found. During this time many Chinese goods, principally porcelain but also jade, were exported to Europe. It was during this later period that jade carving reached new heights, no longer restricted by religious constraints.

There were many, many different subjects. Among the favourites were Kwanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, depicted with her vase from which she pours the elixir of peace; Shou-lao, the God of Longevity with a stag and holding a peach; Putai, the God of Contentment smiling, corpulent and seated with his bag and usually one or two children. Tradition states that women rubbing his rotund stomach receive assistance in conceiving. Many animals appear, actual and mythical - water buffalos, deer, rats, snakes, dragons, kylin, mandarin ducks (for conjugal felicity) and many more. They were carved and polished by craftsmen with 6,000 years of tradition - and they are still plying their skills today.

With thanks to Col Ben Neave-Hill who first entranced me with jade, and to Sotheby's for the photographs.


Jade is beautiful to the eye and touch and although we do not believe, as the Chinese do, that it has magical properties, it is delicate (and expensive) and needs to be kept carefully.

• Jade is brittle. Do not knock or bang it as it cannot be repaired. When not in use, keep in a lined box to prevent knocking and away from sunlight which can cause fading.

• Protect jade from dust and grease. If a piece becomes stained, clean it with a soft brush and light soapsuds and rinse in clean cold water.

• Jade should be kept away from perfumes and chemicals which can cause corrosion. So, if you wear jade, do not wear it next to your skin.

• It is common to mistake soapstone for jade, particularly with mutton-fat nephrite. Once you have handled real jade, however, you will never make the mistake again. Soapstone is soapy and warm to touch; jade is hard, cold and lustrous.