Nephrite Jade – Nature’s Masterpiece Enhanced By Man’s Ingenuity

In my posting of 21 April 2008 on “Jade – China’s King of Gem Stones”, which has inspired my viewer Ms Lee Gek Ling and her small group of lady friends to pursue their interest in nephrite jade collecting even more passionately, she has urged me to pen another article, with suitable photos, to demonstrate the sublime beauty of this stone’s carved works created by the genius of Chinese craftsmen over the ages. Moved by Ms Lee and her fellow jade enthusiasts, it gives me much pleasure to dedicate this article to them, in the hope that it would help spur them on to become knowledgable jade collectors in the years to come.

Praised by jade experts as the “Stone of Heaven”, it has been revered by the Chinese for more than 3000 years and occupies a unique place in Chinese culture which has continued to this day. The Chinese believe that  It has extraordinary qualities, which other gem stones lack, besides its unsurpassed aesthetic charm. Mostly white in colour, it also occurs in other hues and among them are the greenish variety which are very popular now.

The intrinsic quality of this unique stone reflects the most admired human virtues as defined in an ancient Chinese dictionary, Shuo-wen chieh-tzu, which was translated into English by a Chinese author in 1963. They are referred to  in my companion jade piece mentioned above.

The home of nephrite jade is not in China proper, but in the less accessible Central Asia region of Khotan (known  as Hetian in Chinese), which is now part of China’s extensive western Xinjiang province. It is mined on land and also found in river beds of the Karakash River. In past ages, the highest quality stones would be presented to the Chinese Emperor as tributary gifts by the King of Khotan as a gesture of neighbourly goodwill. These gifts would then be crafted by Chinese craftsman into superbly finished products including tools, weapons and others for religious, sacrificial, and ceremonial usages. Later, they were made into precious objects for the appreciation of the emperor himself, and that of the titled people, Confucian scholars and rich merchant classes.

Chinese Rhyton-style cup carved from grey nephrite jade (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Chinese Rhyton-style cup carved from grey nephrite jade (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As many of the finest and rarest jade specimens were often embedded in the Karakash River and its surrounding region, women would be employed as jade finders. According to a 17th century Chinese encyclopaedia, Tien Kung K’ai Wu, because the stone is classified as Yang (masculine element) in Chinese geomancy art, it would be responsive to Ying (feminine element). These women jade finders would enter the water partially bare-body when carrying  out their work in the designated part of the river. As and when they stepped on a jade boulder, it would emit a kind of electrifying signal to her and she would immediately alert the divers to dive into the muddy water in order to retrieve it from beneath her feet. This somewhat unusual method  of gathering these jade stones proved to be quite effective, and would seem to lend credence to the credibility of the traditional art of geomancy! Jade stone harvesting would be more fruitful during brighter moonlight nights in autumn, according to Chinese geomancy principles.

Both the stone quality and quantity reached their peak when Khotan became an integral part of the Chinese empire during the 60-year reign of Qianlong Emperor (1736 to 1796). He was an accomplished patron and collector of jade carvings and other works of art. These stones were increasingly being fashioned into a variety of human and deity figurines, animals, fruits, vegetables, seals, screens, sceptres, belt buckles and an assortment of finger pieces as well as other decorative objects to adorn the palaces of the emperor, and also the homes of high officials and affluent people.

It was the ancient Chinese custom to bury the deceased’s favourite jade and other valuable articles with them for their use in afterlife. The imperial families also believed that, to be immortal, the corpse must be adorned in a well-stitched head to toe jade suit. It was this ancient Chinese practice of burying jades and other valuable articles with the dead that has ensured their survival for posterity.

A Khotan jade market (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A Khotan jade market (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Qianlong Emperor himself would spend many of his leisurely hours fondling and admiring his excellent and extensive jade collection in the privacy of his imperial living quarters and composing poems in praise of their sublime beauty when moved to do so. Some of these elegant praises were carved by Court carvers onto particular works of art that stimulated his royal admiration. Apart from those carvings hand picked by him personally, many of the other fine specimens came to him as tributary offerings, as gifts from his high officials and favoured rich merchants on auspicious occasions such as his birthday and other significant milestones during his illustrious and prosperous reign when China was the richest country in the world. A large part of his royal collection has become the core of the unsurpassed Chinese Gugong collections now housed in Beijing and Taipei.

One of Qianlong Emperor’s most succinct poems in praise of this wonderful stone was quoted by David Kamansky, Director of Pacific Asia Museum, in the Forward to the book, “Chinese Jade, the image from within”, published in 1989. Its English translation by Stanley Nott reads as follows:

One stone

O, you one rock, you single stone!

Several thousand years it is since you came into the world.

Old articles are turned into new. Though you may not be priceless,Yet, elegant, for you have retained your original nature.

Sadly, a substantial number of the imperial works of art were plundered as war booty in 1860 by the invading British and French troops who burned Qianlong Emperor’s sumptuous old summer palace in the outskirts of the capital, thus revealing to the absolutely awed Westerners the marvels of Chinese culture and the ingenuity of the unsung and nameless craft heroes whose labours of love had created these absolutely exquisite objects. With the unprecedented expansion of the Chinese economy in the recent decades, which is the envy of the West and other developed countries, many of these stolen art works, including jades, have been brought back to China, where they rightfully belong, at record auction prices paid by Chinese tycoons for patriotic reasons. They then donated these to China’s leading museums to fill gaps in their important collections.This trend will continue.

The rationale why nephrite jade is so revered and deeply loved by the Chinese community has been touched upon in my previous jade article mentioned earlier, and I shall not repeat them here.

To appraise the commercial value and collector interest of these imperial and other superb nephrite jade pieces, one has to take into account the following criteria among other related factors. These would include the stone’s colour, clarity, texture, translucency, workmanship, cut and shape, rarity, market supply and demand and, very importantly, its provenance. In the past eras, a rare creamy “mutton fat” jade work was the most valuable and sought after, but nowadays the stone’s  pure snow white quality has also increasingly come into the forefront of international demand to match the hitherto unrivalled popularity of “mutton fat” jade, whenever a perfect piece of either category does become available in the auction market. A good greenish nephrite jade piece is also well sought after at a very high price.

It is most interesting to note that, until 2014, the highest price fetched by a piece of carved jade at international auctions held in Hong Kong was a large nephrite imperial “Xintian Zhuren” seal of the Qianlong period which realised US $16 million, unmatched by the most expensive Burmese jadeite ladies jewellery piece. However, this record was convincingly broken a few months later, also in Hong Kong, when the imperial green Burmese jadeite necklace belonging to American celebrity Barbara Hutton-Mdivani was sold at US $28 million! Today, the most expensive jade pieces are mainly jewellery Burmese jadeite, due to the insatiable demand from wealthy ladies in Hong Kong, Mainland China and sometimes also from US and Europe.

As mentioned in my previous jade article above, I have been collecting nephrite jade carvings, mainly the so-called finger pieces, and a few larger ones, of the 18th to early 20th centuries vintages. Even these later pieces are not easy to come by nowadays at reasonable prices like those prevailing three or more decades ago. Today, the bulk of those available in the shops are mostly present day works from Mainland China, Macao and Hong Kong, albeit some are of very refined workmanship. Unfortunately, many of these are passed off as antiques by unscrupulous dealers at inflated prices, Only experienced collectors can detect their recent origin. It is therefore prudent for new collectors to buy the older pieces from a reputable shop at prices that they could afford and always insist on a certificate of authenticity for your own protection. Genuine antique jade pieces do command quite high prices now because their availability is finite, especially so if they are of good quality.

My small group of antique jades are kept in my display cabinets and one must be extremely careful when handling them as they are easily chipped or broken when dropped. These pieces have given me and my wife many hours of endless enjoyment. We have stopped buying them for many years now, because of scarcity of decent quality pieces and highly inflated prices which now prevail everywhere especially in China, because of their growing palpable affluence and demand and dwindling local supply.

A jade burial suit from the Chinese Han Dynasty (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A jade burial suit from the Chinese Han Dynasty (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I must share with you some interesting anecdotes regarding jade finger pieces and why they were so much in demand in times past and now too. The consummate collectors would swear that they have a calming effect when the need for composure arises in daily life, like when taking a crucial examination, attending an important job interview, meeting an august person who can impact on one’s life and, as some would claim, when dating a charming lady friend for the first time whom you want to impress!

In the past eras, candidates sitting the crucial Chinese Imperial Examinations which could make or diminish one’s future prospects, fondling a jade finger piece in one’s palm could soothe one’s nerves and would enable one to   maintain a clear-thinking head in order to tackle the demanding task at hand. Another important occasion was when ranking imperial court officials were required daily at the crack of dawn to report to the emperor in person on important matters under their jurisdiction. They were required to line up in accordance with their seniority in the vast open air imperial courtyard, often shivering in their official robes with long loose sleeves, especially during the winter months, hours before being summoned into the presence of the Son of Heaven. Fondling a jade finger piece would effectively calm their nerves so that they would be more relaxed when kneeling before the mighty emperor. This mode of early morning imperial audience was designed to ensure that the officials would be too awed by the emperor’s absolute authority to go against his royal command. In other situations, giving a jade finger piece to someone who had done you a favour or to celebrate someone’s success in an important examination or in other endeavours would be a well accepted and greatly appreciated gesture.

To conclude my article I would like to quote John Keats (1795-1821), one of England’s foremost romantic poets: A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

To accede to Ms Lee Gek Ling’s request, and bearing in mind the need to comply with copyright law, I have inserted a few public domain photos to enhance my text and others to show part of the modest collection of my nephrite jade pieces.

Lam Pin Foo

6 thoughts on “Nephrite Jade – Nature’s Masterpiece Enhanced By Man’s Ingenuity

  1. From the little that I know, a cat on the leaf you mention is an auspicious symbol in Chinese legend. A human year equals seven years in a cat’s life so the legend goes. Cat is not included in the Chinese Zodiac of 12 animals because there were no cats in China in ancient times A cat has nine lives is an English legend. Cats were sacred in ancient Egypt, depicted in Pharaohs’ tombs in human form with a cat’s head. it is also mummified as seen at the British Museum. I hope this will spur you on to find out more and share your findings with me. Thanks.

  2. PS I have recently found out that the cat symbolises having reached 80 years of age. I am not sure what a cat on a leaf symbolises unless it is a combined meaning of cat and leaf. The leaf by itself symbolises enlightenment as it is usually a Bo tree leaf.

  3. Dear Pin Foo,
    I enjoyed reading this article which brought back many happy memories of the “jade evenings” we had together with other friends. I am still waiting for someone to slip a jade piece into my sleeve, but I think I will be waiting in vain. Your article concentrated on Qing pieces, but I also find earlier works such as the bi or zhong and others just as fascinating.
    Chan See.

  4. Very grateful thanks indeed for a tour de force! I much enjoyed this sequel to your earlier one. The photos of your collection educate impressively. I have not seen mutton fat quality locally: dealers say it is not only so rare it’s hard for them to come by, but even if they did they couldn’t find buyers at the prices they would need to sell at! The softness of the stone, oxymoron though it sounds, is exquisite. I see what Confucious meant when he said jade( nephrite) was the mark of a gentleman and indeed a lady. Noble, resilient , just and elegant.
    I went to the Victoria and Albert and the Fitzwilliam museums in June to see their jade collections. Due to the daily exposure to the public, they used dim lighting so I couldn’t really see the true colour and detail in their pieces. So many thanks indeed for your much clearer photos. A feast for the eye! Content indeed!

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