Jade—Stone of Kings
IN MANY languages, the name for jade is derived from the color green. Yet, in the pure state, jade is white. Traces of impurities give it a rainbow range of hues in tones of red, yellow, mauve, brown, black and, rarely, blue. It is commonly thought of as the “Chinese stone,” but there is no evidence that it ever was mined in China.
The most valued jade today, bearing the designation “imperial,” was known only to China’s last dynasty, the Ch’ing. Few, if any, items larger than buttons and ornaments were made from imperial jade in that vast land until about a dozen years before imperial China was erased by revolution in 1911.
Have you ever touched jade? Are you acquainted with its coolness and its hard softness? You may ask, “How can a substance be both hard and soft?”
On a modern measure of relative hardness known as the Mohs’ scale (ranging from talc’s 1 to diamond’s 10), jade scores 6.75 and 6.50 in its two manifestations. Because jade is hard, it takes a high polish. The resultant satiny surface feels soft to the skin. Once polished, jade slides between one’s fingers and is cool to the touch.
The term jade is applied to two minerals—nephrite and jadeite. By an interplay of calcium, magnesium and water, the amphibole nephrite is formed nearer the earth’s surface than is jadeite. It is just a silicate of magnesium. Nephrite, not jadeite, is the jade of ancient Chinese art.
Jadeite is a pyroxene, silicate of aluminum, and was not used in China to any extent until 1784. In that year, this stone is known to have been imported from Burma. Four years earlier, on the Tawmaw plateau, 68 miles (110 kilometers) from Mogaung, Burma, jadeite was found in its actual geological setting. Before that, only occasional pebbles and rocks had been found in the downriver area at secondary sites. Now a minable source had been discovered. On account of the monsoons, the quarry can be worked only a few months of the year. Of 10,000 stones (actually boulders) cut from Burma’s earth, there may be only one of really good quality.
Jade has been a stone of kings for others besides the Chinese emperors. For instance, the next to the last czar of all the Russias, Alexander III, lies in a sarcophagus of black-flecked spinach jade. In spinach jade, the sea of deep green has regularly spaced motes of black graphite, the “lead” of our writing pencils.
A ruler of still another time and place looked with disbelief upon a Spaniard, Hernando Cortes, who preferred gold to jade. If asked, that ruler, the noted Aztec Montezuma, would have placed jade, turquoise and the green plumes of the quetzal bird above gold. His jade was jadeite, distinguishable from Burma’s jadeite only by traces of diopside, a complex silicate. Xochimilco in Mexico, now famous for its floating gardens, was said to be the principal center of Aztec lapidary work.
The Aztec kings found in jade a permanent memorial of the color of the remarkable quetzal bird. Half a world away, China’s emperors called jade fei t’sui, the word for another bird, the kingfisher.
Where did the Chinese obtain their nephrite before the eighteenth-century importations of jadeite from Burma? For more than 2,000 years the legendary “dragon tears” were brought in 14-foot (four-meter) slabs from the Takla Makan Desert, Khotan-Yarkand in Chinese Turkistan. So, jade (nephrite) is what Marco Polo must have seen at Khotan in 1272 and then described as “jasper and chalcedony.” Some nephrite also came from what is still a modern-day source, Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Yes, jade, the ‘greenstone’—pounamou in the language of the Maoris, kyauksein in Burmese, and chalchihuitl or quetzalchalchihuitl in the dead tongue of the Aztecs—was China’s stone of kings. The ancient Chinese pictograph for jade consists of three horizontal lines and one vertical line, representing three slabs of jade threaded on a string. Today, with the exception of a dot, the character for jade is the same as that for king. The dot distinguishes the enduring gem [Artwork—Chinese characters] from the mortal monarch [Artwork—Chinese characters].