Jade, or “yu”, has been a symbol of Chinese civilisation since prehistoric times, and was the most highly valued precious stone. Jade had that status in Chinese culture even before the Bronze Age. The emperor’s seal wasn’t made of gold or silver, but of the more valuable jade. It was seen as the most noble of materials and symbolised nobility, perfection, beauty, purity, virtue, continuity and immortality. Jade was the “essence of the strength of the mountains”, which enabled man to communicate with the gods. The earliest Chinese dictionary, put together by Xu Shen in the second century A.D., defined jade as jadeite, nephrite, jasper, serpentine and crystal. It says, “Jade is beauty in stone. It symbolizes rectitude because its translucence reveals the colour and markings within; wisdom because of its pure and penetrating note when struck; courage because it breaks but doesn’t bend; equity because it can have sharp edges which don’t, however injure.”
By the eighteenth century it was mined, but before that had to be found in mountains and riverbeds. According to legend, women searched for it in the rivers with their bare feet. Their skin was sensitive to jade’s special surface, particularly because the yang of the one attracted the yin of the other.
Jade was considered the essence of heaven and earth. The purest and most costly jade is lychee-pulp white. Olive green tones are most commonly found. The varieties of colour are caused by different minerals in the stone. The oldest artefacts found are ritual axes, flat discs called “bi” and “cong”. According to Chinese cosmology the sky is round. The earth is square and reflects the five spatial directions: east, south, west, north and centre. The “bi” was a round disc with a round hole in the middle, a kind of broadring.
The magical beauty of the material meant anything made of jade was highly prized. That is true too of the snuff bottles of the
Manchu or Qing reign (1644–1911) and
the period of the Republic, i.e. from the
revolution of Sun Yatsen (1911) to the
Fine ground jade powder was taken
to ward off diseases and evil spirits.
The tradition is reflected incidentally in
its western name. Jade is derived from “piedra de la ijada”, Spanish for “stone
of softness”, e.g. to soften a kidney stone.
The Daoists (Taoists) hoped to attain
immortality by regular consumption of
According to an old Chinese belief,
jade reaches its full beauty only after
long caressing. After years of stroking
with the hand the stone reveals all its
liveliness and transparency. Thus every
object of jade (and bronze for that matter
too) destined for the emperor underwent
long and careful rubbing. Presenting
a piece to the “Son of Heaven” shortly
after mining or polishing would have
been an insult to his imperial dignity.
And so those jade snuff bottles made
for well-to-do customers owe part of
their perfect beauty and their enigmatic
lustre to the many hours in which they
were affectionately contemplated in the
hand, touched, felt, fingered, stroked and
© Klaus G. Muller
Notwithstanding the difficulties of working with jade, it was always cut and polished carefully in order to honour the gods of the heavens. The “cong” was a long, hollow ornament with square sides, resembling a pipe rounded inside but with a square exterior. It was supposed to appease the good and evil spirits of the earth. Ritual objects, amulets to chase away evil spirits, lucky charms and official emblems were usually made of jade. The living wore jade as a sign of their moral integrity. The dead were provided with it to preserve their bodies and comfort their souls. Shrouds made of around 2,500 small jade plates were supposed to radiate life-preserving forces and protect the body from decay.
After the Song (or Sung, 960–1279) and Yuan dynasties (1279–1368), jade was increasingly used for everyday articles, rather than just for ritual objects.