Updated: Nov 6
Chinese jade carving © Jessica Murphy / Public Domain / Pixabay
Only a few valuable stones are the subject of so many mysteries and legends in China. The jade stone still intrigues many today, for its intense colour but also its many virtues as a symbol of the Chinese imperial dynasties, revealing all the secrets of this precious and ancient gem of Chinese culture. Jade, in Chinese 玉 (yù), is a silicate of alumina and lime of the augite family. It is a hard, translucent stone with a very fine, smooth, and extremely tight grain. Smooth, known to the eye and to the touch, its tones vary from creamy white, to dark olive green, depending on the proportions of iron oxide and chromium oxide in its composition (Wen & Jing ,1992).
In addition, it is a very smooth stone to work with and shape. It was used for a long time to make axe heads and weapons, as well as scraping and hammering tools because of its hardness. Indeed, jadeite is white (colourless) in its pure state, but traces of impurities make it appear in a wide spectrum of allochromatic hues. The presence of iron colours jadeite dark green, chromium colours jadeite emerald green (imperial jade), and manganese colours jadeite lilac. Whereas pink, brown, orange, red, and even black or "Olmec blue" jadeite gets its colour from foreign mineral inclusions. Jadeite is commonly found in alluvial deposits along subduction zones as boulders or small pebbles (Zhang, 2004).
In fact, we distinguish two types of jade, nephrite, and jadeite, which were not clearly differentiated until the late 18th century. Interest in nephrite, which has been part of Asian history for over 7000 years, then shifted to jadeite (Demattè, 2006).
Nephrite, composed of calcium and magnesium hydroxylated silicate, is a mineral of the amphibole family and has a hardness of 5.5 to 6 slightly, less than quartz.
Jadeite is a rock, part of the pyroxene group, composed of sodium silicate and aluminium. Its hardness of about 6.5 to 7 is more or less equivalent to quartz.
Jade is the gemstone regarded in China as a status symbol and was used for jewellery and expensive decorations. The Chinese character for “jade”, (玉,yù) has a similarity with the character for “emperor” (王, wáng). By adding the small stroke on the bottom right the “jade” Chinese character can also mean “the emperor’s stone”. (Pang, 2021).
It was also known as the “stone of heaven”, symbolising prosperity, success, good luck, renewable, longevity and even immortality (Bogus, 2019).
China’s most famous professor and political theorist, Confucius (551-479 BCE) (孔子, kǒng zǐ), wrote in the Book of Rites (礼记, lǐ jì) eleven virtues that are represented in the jade stone: benevolence, justice, propriety, truth, credibility, music, loyalty, heaven, earth, morality and intelligence (Shan, 2018).
Even before Confucius, the jade stone was part of ritual contexts in the middle to late Neolithic periods 4000-2500 BCE) of the Hongshan culture along the Lao River (today a river in Northern Thailand).It was also prominent in Liangzhu culture in the Tai Lake region located today between the Jiangsu, Zhejiang provinces and Shanghai. (Shan, 2018).
In the first Chinese dictionary published in the early second century CE, the 說文解字 (shuō wén jiě zì) writer, Xu Shen (许慎, xǔ shèn), described the jade stone as “beautiful” (Shan, 2018).
Being “mysterious” in ancient times, the jade stone was popularised as sacrificial vessels and were buried with the dead, such as for the prince of the Zhongshan State of the Western Han Dynasty. For example, Liu Sheng (劉勝, liú shèng), in 113 BCE buried in a jade suit with 2,498 pieces of jade stitched together with gold thread (Shan, 2018).
During the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), the Emperor Qianlong (乾隆帝, qián lóng dì), was obsessed with the stone and built the most extensive known collection of jade artefacts during his reign. He used to spend hours contemplating his jade artefacts in the Imperial Treasury and has composed 800 poems and songs about jade (Bogus, 2019).
The jade stone symbolises balance in feng shui (风水 fēng shuǐ) and is revered for its healing properties, balancing the body’s processes due to it being a living stone. Its healing properties are to help balance fluids and the body's filtering organs such as the kidneys, bladder, sleep, and adrenal glands by removing toxins. It benefits skeletal and cellular systems and helps heal infections and physical injuries. For women, the jade stone helps for fertility and childbirth (Cho, 2022).
For the feng shui, the jade stone is exposed in homes to balance the circulation of energies such as in statues, carvings, and tumbled pieces. The colours of the stone are also connected with the five-element system in feng shui and can have an influence on the emotions of the person wearing it (Cho, 2022).
The jade stone is qì (气), the life force that flows through and around all living things according to Chinese customs. It is believed to connect the heaven and earth realms as the stone comes from earth but its luminous quality is like the sunlight and the stars (Cho, 2022).
Depending on the jade’s colour, some describe it as the yin (阴 yīn) and yang (阳 yáng) . The yin is lighter and more translucent jade considered to have softer energies while the yang is a deeper green and more opaque version of jade considered to have more significant energy (Cho, 2022).
The mythological creature of the dragon, well known in Chinese culture, has its eyes or veins often carved with deep green jade stone to represent the strength of the creature and the ability to live a better life (Cho, 2022).
The carving of the jade stone also has significance. Mountains represent longevity, bats are happiness, butterflies represent long life and love, dragons are power, prosperity, and goodness, the peach fruit represents immortality and the circular disk with a hole in the middle is heaven (Bogus, 2019).
Najoua Chetioui is a Master's student in Management and International Business, specialising in exchanges with Asia, at le Havre Normandie University. Moreover, she is passionate about Chinese culture and language. You can find her on LinkedIn here.
Prisca Mirchandani is a freelance journalist. She holds a trilingual Master’s degree of Global Security and Analysis (French, English, and Chinese) from the University of Bordeaux, France. She is passionate about China-EU relations, China-France relations, and China Hong Kong’s history. You can find her on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
Do you have an article you would like to share? Write for us.
Bogus, D. Discovering Chinese Jade Folklore, Symbolism and Legend. Shop LC. 04/12/2019. https://blog.shoplc.com/chinese-jade/
Cho,A. Jade Meaning, Healing Properties, & Uses. The Spruce. Updated 31/08/2022. https://www.thespruce.com/jade-meaning-ancient-strength-and-serenity-1274373
Demattè, P., 2006. The Chinese Jade Age: between antiquarianism and archaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology, 6(2), pp.202-226.
Pang,K. Chinese Jade Articles, Chinese Jadeite, Chinese Nephrite. China Highlights. Updated 23/08/2021. https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/jade-articles.htm
Shan,J. Importance of Jade in Chinese Culture.Thought Co. 16/09/2020, https://www.thoughtco.com/about-jade-culture-629197
Wen, G. & Jing, Z. (1992), ‘Chinese Neolithic Jade: A Preliminary Geoarchaeological Study’, Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 7(3): 251–75. https://doi.org/10.1002/gea.3340070304
Zhang, M., 2004. Chinese Jade: Power and Delicacy in a Majestic Art. Long River Press.