Importance of Jade in Chinese Culture

Close-Up of Jade Sculpture


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Jade is a metamorphic rock that is naturally colored green, red, yellow, or white. When it polished and treated, the vibrant colors of jade can be extraordinary. The most popular kind of jade in Chinese culture is green jade, which has an emerald hue. 

Called 玉 (yù) in Chinese, jade is very important in Chinese culture because of its beauty, practical use, and social value.

Here is an introduction to jade and why it is so important to Chinese people. Now when you browse through an antique shop, jewelry store, or museum, you can impress your friends with your knowledge of this important stone.

Types of Jade

Jade is classified into soft jade (nephrite) and hard jade (jadeite). Since China only had soft jade until jadeite was imported from Burma during the Qing dynasty (1271-1368), jade traditionally refers to soft jade. That's why soft jade is also called traditional jade.

On the other hand, jadeite is called feicui in Chinese. Feicui is now more popular and valuable than soft jade in China today.

History of Jade

Jade has been a part of Chinese civilization from the beginning. Chinese jade was used as a material for practical and ornamental purposes at such an early period in history, and it continues to be very popular today.

Archaeologists have found jade objects from the early Neolithic period (about 5000 BCE) which are believed to be part of the Hemudu culture in Zhejian Province. Jade pieces from the middle to late Neolithic period have also been found, probably representative of the Hongshan culture that existed along the Lao River, the Longshan culture by the Yellow River, and the Liangzhu culture in the Tai Lake region.

In 說文解字 (shuo wen jie zi), the first Chinese dictionary published in 200 CE, jade was defined as "beautiful stones" by Xu Zhen. Thus, jade has been a familiar topic in China for a very long time.

Uses of Chinese Jade

Archaeological findings have excavated sacrificial vessel, tools, ornaments, utensils, and many other items made out of jade. Ancient music instruments were made out of Chinese jade, such as the flute, yuxiao (a vertical jade flute), and chimes.

The beautiful color of jade made it a mysterious stone to the Chinese in ancient times, so jade wares were popular as sacrificial vessels and were often buried with the dead.

For example, to preserve the body of Liu Sheng, the ruler of the Zhongshan State around 113 BCE, he was buried in a jade burial suit composed of 2,498 pieces of jade sewn together with gold thread.

Importance of Jade in Chinese Culture

Chinese people love jade not only because of its aesthetic beauty but also because of what it represents regarding social value. Confucius said that there are 11 De, or virtues, represented in jade. The following is the translation:

"The wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which 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 color 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. Used alone without ornamentation it represents chastity. The price that the entire world attaches to it represents the truth.

To support these comparisons, the Book of Verse says:

"When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade."'

Thus, beyond monetary worth and materiality, jade is greatly prized as it stands for beauty, grace, and purity. As the Chinese saying goes: "gold has a value; jade is invaluable." 

Jade in the Chinese Language

Because jade represents desirable virtues, the word for jade is incorporated into many Chinese idioms and proverbs to denote beautiful things or people.

For example, 冰清玉洁 (bingqing yujie), which directly translates to "clear as ice and clean as jade" is a Chinese saying that means to be pure and noble. 亭亭玉立 (tingting yuli) is a phrase used to describe something or someone that is fair, slim, and graceful. Additionally, 玉女 (yùnǚ), which means jade woman, is a term for a lady or beautiful girl. 

A popular thing to do in China is to use the Chinese character for jade in Chinese names. It is interesting to note that the Supreme Deity of Taoism has the name, Yuhuang Dadi (the Jade Emperor).

Chinese Stories About Jade

Jade is so ingrained in Chinese culture that there are famous stories about Jade. The two most famous tales are "He Shi Zhi Bi" (Mr. He and His Jade) and "Wan Bi Gui Zhao" (Jade Returned Intact to Zhao). As a side note, "bi" also means jade.

"He Shi Zhi Bi" is a story about the suffering of Mr. He and how he presented his raw jade to the kings again and again. The raw jade was eventually recognized as an invaluable kind of jade and was named after Mr. He by Wenwang, the king of the Chu State around 689 BCE.

"Wan Bi Gui Zhao" is the follow-up story of this famous jade. The king of the Qin State, the most powerful state during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), attempted to exchange the jade from the Zhao State using his 15 cities. However, he failed. The jade was returned to the Zhao State safely. Thus jade was also a symbol of power in ancient times.