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 important to 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 CE), the term "jade" traditionally refers to nephrite, and so soft jade is also called traditional jade. In preColumbian America, only hard jade was available; all Native American jades are jadeite.

Burmese 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 earliest days. Chinese jade was used as a material for practical and ornamental purposes at an early period in history, and it continues to be very popular today.

The earliest Chinese jade is from the early Neolithic period Hemudu culture in Zhejian Province (about 7000–5000 BCE). Jade was an important part of ritual contexts in the middle to late Neolithic periods, such as the Hongshan culture that existed along the Lao River and the Liangzhu culture in the Tai Lake region (both date between 4000–2500 BCE). Carved jade has also been found in sites dated to the Longshan culture (3500–2000 BCE) by the Yellow River; and the Bronze age cultures of Western and Easter Zhou dynasties (11th–3rd centuries BCE).

In 說文解字 (shuo wen jie zi), the first Chinese dictionary published in the early second century CE, jade was described as "beautiful stones" by the writer Xu Zhen. Jade has been a familiar substance in Chinese culture for a very long time.

Uses of Chinese Jade

Archaeological artifacts of jade include sacrificial vessels, tools, ornaments, utensils, and many other items. Ancient music instruments were made out of Chinese jade, such as the yuxiao (a flute made of jade and played vertically), 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.

One example of the ritual importance of jade is the burial of the body of Liu Sheng, a prince of the Zhongshan State (Western Han Dynasty) who died around 113 BCE. He was buried in a jade suit composed of 2,498 pieces of jade stitched 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. In the Li Ji (Book of Rites), Confucius said that there are 11 De, or virtues, represented in jade: benevolence, justice, propriety, truth, credibility, music, loyalty, heaven, earth, morality, and intelligence.

"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." Book of Rites

In the Shi Jing (Book of Odes), Confucius wrote:

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

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 ("yu") 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 someone is 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. The Supreme Deity of Taoism is known as Yuhuang Dadi (the Jade Emperor).

Chinese Stories About Jade

Jade is so ingrained in Chinese culture that there are famous stories about Jade (here called "bi"). The two most famous tales are "He Shi Zhi Bi" ("Mr. He and His Jade" or "He's Jade Disc") and "Wan Bi Gui Zhao" ("Jade Returned Intact to Zhao"). The stories involve a man named Bian He and a piece of jade that eventually became a symbol of united China.

"He Shi Zhi Bi" tells the story of Mr. He and how he found a piece of raw jade and tried to give it to two generations of kings, but they didn't recognize it as valuable and cut off his feet as punishment for trying to pass off an unworthy stone. Eventually, the grandson of the first king finally had his jeweler cut the stone open and found the raw jade; it was carved into a disc and named after Mr. He by that grandson, Wenwang, the king of the Chu State, around 689 BCE.

"Wan Bi Gui Zhao" is the follow-up story of this famous jade. The carved disc was subsequently stolen from the Chu State and eventually ended up owned by the Zhao. The king of the Qin State, the most powerful state during the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), attempted to buy the jade disc back from the Zhao State in exchange for 15 cities. (Jade is known as 价值连城, 'Valued at multiple cities" because of this story.) However, he failed.

Eventually, after some amount of political chicanery, the jade disc was returned to the Zhao State. In 221 BCE, the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi conquered the Zhao state, and as the ruler and founder of the Qin dynasty, he had the disc carved into a seal representing the new united China. The seal was part of the royal stores in China for 1,000 years before being lost during the Ming and Tang dynasties.

Source

  • Wu Dingming. 2014. "A Panoramic View of Chinese Culture." Simon and Schuster.