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Chinese Imperial Jade: Hetian Jade, Xiu Yu & Nanyang Jade

Jade & Jadeite   |  Chinese Imperial Jade   |  Jewellery of Ancient China

History of Jade in China

Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

Jade (pronounced "yu" in Chinese, and meaning "the most beautiful stone") was considered a royal gem in Ancient China from the earliest dynasties up until present times, and is inextricably woven into ancient and modern Chinese culture. The use of jade (nephrite) in China dates beck some 8,000 to 12,000 years, and was an integral part of commercial, religious and ceremonial life throughout this region. Although the finest jade was reserved for the Imperial courts, the use of jade in everyday life crossed all socioeconomic boundaries.

Most of the "jade" used in China prior to the 17th and 18th centuries was nephrite - also known as "Ming Jade." Although most westerners don't consider jade to be a "precious" gemstone, jade was invaluable to the Chinese people of ancient times. In ancient China, jade was held in much higher esteem than other precious gemstones or metals such as gold and silver. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says: "gold is estimable, but jade is priceless."

Ming Tombs

Ming tombs near Beijing

   Ming Green Jade Earrings

Ming green imperial jade earrings

So revered was jade that during the Han Dynasty (206 BC—220 AD) Chinese nobility was buried in a ceremonial suit made of pieces of jade, called appropriately a "Jade burial suit" (yu yi, or "jade suit"). According to the Book of Later Han, the type of wire used was dependent on the station of the person buried, with the emperors using gold thread; princes, princesses, silver thread; sons or daughters of those given silver thread, copper thread; and lesser aristocrats, silk thread. Ordinary citizens were forbidden to be buried in jade suits.

Ming or nephrite jade was used extensively during the Ming Dynasty (1368—1644) to carve jewelry, functional objects, and animal figurines similar to those that line the road to the royal Ming tombs north of Beijing (above, left). Jade was also used for making a 'Xi' or engraved seal. Qin Shi Huang, who was one of the first emperors of China, had his Xi made out of "Heshi Bi" jade.

The Legend of He Shi Bi Jade

The Heshi Bi (aka: He Shi Bi, meaning "Jade disc of He") was perhaps the most valuable piece of jade in Chinese recorded history. The He Shi Bi was made from a single piece of "Hetian nephrite" found in the ancient State of Chu (aka Jing, Jingchu or modern-day Jiangsu Province) in Eastern China, by a man named Bian He in c.10th century BC, during the "Warring States" period.

As the ancient proverb is told, this perfect specimen of jade was concealed by an outer stone layer, and rather than carve into the precious stone, Bian He gave it to king Li of the Chu State. King Li did not believe the value of the jade that lay within, and cut off one of Bian He's legs. Later, the new Chu king Wu was presented with the rough stone, and also not believing Bian He's story, had his other leg cut off. When Li's successor, king Wen took the throne he had his best sculptors cut into the rough stone where they found an incomparable piece of white jade. The jade was cut into a disc, and named in honor of Bian He, becoming a national treasure known as the "Heshi Bi."

Black Hetian Jade

Zoom: Hetian Black & White Jade

   Modern Hetian White Jade Cabbage

Hetian white jade cabbage

Around c.280 BC, the He Shi Bi was stolen, and sold to King Wuling of the Zhao Dynasty (1045—256 BC) in Western China's Hebei, Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces. King Zhaoxiang of the later Qin Dynasty (221—206 BC) offered fifteen cities to Wuling in exchange for the He Shi Bi, which is the origin of the Chinese saying that jade can be "valued in multiple cities." Subsequently, Wuling desired the stone's return, and a Zhao minister named Lin Xiangru was put in charge of the negotiations with king Zhaoxiang. Xiangru declared that there was a small flaw in the He Shi Bi, and he threatened to break the jade, and the king's bones, if Zhaoxiang tried to take the stone by force.

Zhaoxiang was unwilling to allow the He Shi Bi to be destroyed due to his selfishness, and he decreed that it be returned to Wuling, thus "returning the jade intact to Zhao." The Qin Dynasty (aka Ch'in Dynasty) went on to conquer all six of the Warring States, and under the order of the new Qin king Qin Shi Huang (259—210 BCE), the He Shi Bi was carved into his Imperial seal. It is rumored that a Qin Dynasty prime minister named Li Si (c.280—208 BC) then had the seal inscribed with the words "Having received the mandate from heaven, may Li Si lead a long and prosperous life." After passing through several successive dynasties, the He Shi Bi was lost to history (and legend).

Chinese Jade-Carving Motifs

Early Chinese jade carving motifs were influenced by Buddhism and Taoism, with each representation having a unique meaning. Popular motifs were the deer symbolizing high official ranking, a duck symbolizing 'love,' bamboo for 'lofty conduct,' the fan indicating 'benevolence,' and lotus 'holiness.' The cabbage is a popular motif even today, used to bring wealth or prosperity into the home. The jade cabbage (below, left) is on display at the Forbidden City's Palace Museum, with a contemporary version shown (below, right).

Jadeite Cabbage from the Forbidden City

Jadeite cabbage from the Forbidden City

   Multi-Colored Jade Jewelry

Multi-colored jade jewelry

Jade was used as a talisman to protect the wearer and as a status symbol indicating the dignity, grace and morality of the owner. As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC—24 AD), potentates and officials were buried with jade artifacts to protect in the afterlife.

The name "Yu" was given to a young girl as a symbol of love from her parents, and Emperor Xuanzong (Tang Dynasty c.618 to 907) named his favorite concubine Yang Yuhuan with "Yuhuan" meaning "jade ring."

The Confucianist Han Dynasty scholar, Xu Shen (c.58 CE to c.147 CE) described jade as the fairest of stones, endowed with five virtues: "Charity is typified by its luster, bright yet warm; rectitude by its translucency, revealing the color and markings within; wisdom by the purity and penetrating quality of its note when the stone is struck; courage, in that it may be broken, but cannot be bent; equity, in that it has sharp angles, which yet injure none."

Chinese Jade Classification

The largest nephrite jade deposits in China were in the region of Khotan or Hetian in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Chinese nephrite jade occurs in four main color varieties and qualities known as Hetian jade, Lantian jade, Nanyang jade, or Xiu Yu jade. Colors range from white jade to reddish brown, yellow, green, lavender, pink, and black; with Hetian jade and Xiu Jade being the most highly prized. Chinese jade is also divided into two basic categories of hard or soft.

Jade Factory

Jade factory in Beijing

   Imperial Green Jade Ship

Imperial green jade ship

Xiu Jade (Xiu Yu)

Xiu Jade or Xiu Yu (aka "Serpentine jade") is a highly prized semi-translucent form of nephrite jade mined in Liaoning Province near Xiuyan County, in north-eastern China. Xiu jade has a light green color that is similar to Burmese jadeite, but softer and more easily carved into intricate designs. The color can vary from dark green to pink, yellow, tan or ivory.

Xiu-Yu Jade Slab

Xiu-yu jade slab

   Multicolored Jadeite Necklace

Multicolored jadeite bead necklace

Hetian Jade

Hetian Nephrite is mined in the high altitude Kunlun Mountains (4500 m) in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of north-western China, near the Mongolian and Russian boarder. Hetian Nephrite is divided into two categories: 'Mountain Nephrite' and 'Seed Nephrite,' with the Seed Nephrite being more desirable. Varieties of Seed Nephrite are: black jade, blue-white jade, green jade, mutton-fat Jade, tang jade, white jade, and yellow jade. Mutton-Fat Jade is considered to finest with a 'greasy' delicate texture and bright color. Chinese Hetian nephrite is nearing depletion due to over-mining, and as such it has become very valuble.

Lantian Jade

Lantian Jade is mined in Lantian Xian county of the Shaanxi province of central China. Lantian Jade known for its light green to pale yellow color was primarily used up until the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), when Hetian jade became increasingly popular.

Chinese Kingfisher Jade

Chinese feitsu kingfisher jade

   Lantian Jade Bi Amulets

Lantian jade Bi amulets

Nanyang Jade

Nanyang jade (aka Dushan jade) is mined in Nanyang County in Henan Province. The mines are situated on the 200 meter high 'Dushan Hill.' Nanyang jade occurs in red, purple, and blue hues.

Feitsu or "kingfisher" Jadeite in China

In the 17th century during the early Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), large scale importation of jadeite from Northern Burma caused nephrite to loose popularity in China. Jadeite with its bright emerald-green, lavender and reddish-orange hues became known by the Chinese as "feitsu" or "kingfisher" jade, and was considered to be the "king of jade." The reddish coloration is attributed to iron impurities, while the green is due to the presence of chromium.

Jade & Gem Trade Organizations in China

Hong Kong Jade & Stone Laboratory Ltd.
Hong Kong Jewellery & Jade Manufacturers Association (HKJJA)
Kaiser Estate Phase I
41 Man Yue Street
Hunghom, Kowloon
Hong Kong, China
Tel: + 852 2543 0543

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History of Jade
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Bibliography and Reference on Jade & Jadeite

1. Paul R. Shaffer, Rocks, Gems and Minerals . Martin's Press

2. Renee Newman, Gemstone Buying Guide . International Jewelry Publications; 2nd edition

3. Antoinette L . Matlins, Antonio C. Bonanno, Gem Identification Made Easy . Gemstone Press

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