No one loves and reveres jades more than the Chinese. The Chinese are, indisputably, the most jade (yu) loving people on earth. They have always regarded it the “King of Gem Stones”, and their abiding love affair with it began several millennia ago. In ancient China, jade was eagerly sought and treasured by no less than the Emperor himself as well as his subjects. Many magical and even supernatural qualities were attributed to it, besides its aesthetic appeal when fashioned into varied shapes and forms by successive generations of master craftsmen. Even today, it continues to be valued as family heirlooms and affectionately handed down from one generation to another.
Throughout Chinese history, jade has been closely associated with the junzi (scholar) class, as it shares some of the character traits of a Confucian scholar and gentleman, which all true men of learning were expected to emulate.
It is a common Chinese belief that jade can bi xie, that is to ward off evil spirits or to protect oneself against imminent dangers. My aged late mother-in-law once sustained a severe fall from some height which could have resulted in serious injuries. Miraculously, she escaped the resultant fall unscathed except for a few superficial bruises, but her valuable and beautifully translucent yu bangle was smashed into pieces.
Only nephrite jade, which is mostly white in colour but also occurs in other hues, is mined or found in China but the really fine stones came from the former central Asian kingdoms of Khotan and Yarkand (now the Chinese province of Xinjiang) since early times. The choicest specimens would be presented to the Chinese emperor as tributary gifts.
Due to the skills and ingenuity of the Chinese jade carvers, this very hard gem stone, harder than ruby and second only to diamond in hardness on the Mohs scale, has been fashioned into diversely creative objects ranging from utilitarian tools to those for sacrificial or religious uses to specially created ornaments and works of art for the enjoyment of discerning collectors.
Pieces most highly valued by Chinese jade connoisseurs are those exquisitely carved in what is called the “mutton fat” jade, due to its intrinsic quality and rarity. On the other hand, when a different kind of jade called jadite, which is emerald green in colour at its best, was first introduced into the Chinese market from Burma (now Myanmar) during the 18th century after it became a British colony, it was immediately spurned by the Chinese jade experts who could not conceive the idea of quality jade being of any colour other than white. However, with the effluxion of time, the affluent Chinese, led by the high-born ladies, began to appreciate jadite’s brilliant colour and dazzling visual impact especially when crafted into jewelery items. Today, its most excellent specimens command high prices which would equal the best of the carved old “mutton fat” nephrite pieces.
According to Professor R. E. Strassberg, a sinologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, shuo-wen jie zi, a Chinese dictionary written more than 2000 years ago, laid down an authoritative definition of jade’s enduring qualities which he translated as: “The beauty of jade is revealed in its five virtues: Its lustre produces a feeling of warmth-the virtue of humaneness; its translucence enables one to comprehend its inner-markings, revealing the virtue of morality; its tone when struck reverberates, and its purity penetrates far, which is the virtue of courage; sharp and austere, it injures no one, which demonstrates its purity.”
Besides collecting Chinese ceramics, my wife and I were also instantly smitten by the subtle allure and seemingly spiritual purity of carved nephrite jade articles. We first came upon some excellent exhibits in the world-renowned museums and antique fairs in London in the 1970s and these spanned more than 4000 years of Chinese history showcasing the development of the jade industry there. They immediately aroused our keen desire to acquire a few examples of the later periods. Fortunately for us, nephrite jade works of above average quality of the 17th to 19th centuries were then in good supply at prices that would not burn a hole in one’s pocket. So we were able to purchase several articles from reputable antique dealers, ranging from finger pieces of human and animal figures to wine cups and to mandarin belt-buckles, all of which still adorn our jade cabinet.
Having whetted our appetite for jade, we were recommended by a collector friend to meet Helen Ling, a refined American lady married to a Singaporean entrepreneur, whose antique shop along Tanglin Road was well-stocked with splendid antique jade pieces as well as quality Chinese ceramics and ceramics of Thailand and Vietnam . Before coming to Singapore in the 1950s, she had a thriving antique shop in China but had to close it after the the founding of the People’s republic of China in 1949. Much of her remaining stock was moved to Singapore when she set up shop here.
She and her husband, Dr Ling, became close friends of the legendary Jim Thompson, who promoted Thai silk products internationally and earned the reputation as the “Thai Silk King”. His chain of shops in Thailand and overseas were thriving and well supported by both Thais and foreigners alike. While staying as the Lings’ house guest in their holiday bungalow in Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967, Thompson went for his usual morning walk in the nearby thick jungles and disappeared without a trace. Till today, no body knows what really happened to him and whether he is still alive or dead. His body was never found. His old residence in Bangkok has been converted into a museum in his memory and much visited by visitors to that country.
We went to Helen Ling’s shop regularly at weekends and had gained some knowledge about antique nephrite jade under her expert and patient guidance. My wife bought several good quality jade ornaments and pendents from her over a period. We also bought Chinese and Thai antique ceramic pieces from her shop. All these pieces have given us endless hours of enjoyment. Articles such as these are now difficult to come by in Singapore except at high prices. She passed away in old age some years ago and we have very fond memory of her as an exemplary and highly knowledgeable antique dealer and a real credit to her rather esoteric trade.
We also had good buys from a couple of goldsmith and jewelery shops along South Bridge Road at most reasonable prices as they had bought their stocks very cheaply direct from China during the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-1977), which was a very dark and sad period in Chinese history. It was no wonder that their limited stocks, comprising mainly good of their kind pieces carved during the 19th and early 20th centuries, were quickly snapped up by local collectors. They were among our rare finds which were not easy to come by at other shops.
Our most spectacular bargains happened in Beijing in 1982 from a most unexpected source – in a tourist souvenir establishment at the famed Summer Palace. My wife and I were attending an international conference dinner in an elegantly furnished Chinese-style building when I came across a large tray of assorted old jade pieces, including belt-buckles, cups, tiny figurines, seals and other small ornamental objects, staring at us beneath the showcase of this shop near the dinning hall. An aged Chinese collector had asked the shop to sell his private jade collection on consignment. I missed a good part of the feast in order to select the best picks at prices which would not be possible anywhere else in the world.
Chinese history is replete with episodes on the allure and power of jade in influencing affairs of state or highlighting human addictions to it. The most well known incident concerning the He Shi Bi (a flat jade disk with a circular perforation named after a historic figure by the name of He Shi of the Warring States period (476-221 BCE). The story goes that the King of Zhao is willing to present his unique and priceless jade disk to the powerful King of Qin, who subsequently became the First Emperor of China and who has long coveted it, as the price for securing a non-aggression pact. When the Zhao envoy Lin comes face to face with the Qin king and realises that he has no desire for peace and is merely trying to trick him into handing over the invaluable object, he immediately threatens to smash it to smithereens rather than part with it. The Qin king then reluctantly sets Lin free with the bi intact, as he cannot bear to see it destroyed.
Today, Chinese jade carvings, both nephrite and jadeite, are enthusiastically collected worldwide and the continuing escalating prices paid for the most superb and rarest articles, which can fetch millions of dollars at international auctions, reflect their growing universal appeal and the scarcity of such works that are still available in the market place. This is because the choicest pieces are already firmly entrenched in the Gugong Museums in Beijing and Taipei, and other outstanding examples are to be found in leading museums in Japan, United States, other Western countries and also in the prvate collections all over the world.
Lam Pin Foo