Jade: cultural history of a mysterious stone

Wednesday October 12, 2016:  Jade: cultural history of a mysterious stone, lecture by Thierry Zarcone, French Historian, Researcher at the CNRS attached to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).

Until 19rd century, jade has been a mysterious stone for Europeans and it was called jasper or chalcedony, then through the Spanish who imported the “piedra de ijada” (“kidney stone” - or “flank stone” -) From America, the French word which resulted from it became “pierre de l'Éjade” then, by deformation, jade. This word appears for the first time in the "General Dictionary" in 1667, but it will also give the name nephritis because the stone was supposed to cure diseases related to the kidneys.
It is only in 1863 that, thanks to the French scientist Alexis Darmour, the Jadeite coming from Burma is dissociated from the nephrite of Turkestan.
For the Chinese, jade, yu玉, ​​conveys the notion of beautiful, precious, treasure. If the Shang (1600-1046 BC) or the Zhou (1046-256 BC) used a jade extracted from Chinese regions (Ningshao, Liaoning and Inner Mongolia), the depletion of these local sources and the increase of demand made them turn to Turkestan jade. Since antiquity, nephrite jade has been mined in Xinjiang province, more particularly in the regions of Khotan and Yarkand where it is collected in the bed of the Yurungkash (White Jade River), Karakash (Black Jade River) rivers. ) and Yarkand. The "Silk Road", so called by Westerners in the 19rd century allowed caravans to travel between the Middle East, India and China. The caravans certainly transported silk, but also many other goods including nephrite jade which could, passing through the Gansu corridor and the Jade Gate (Yumen pass) before Dunhuang, reach Ch'ang-An ( Xi'an), the capital of the Empire. The Jade Gate, located on the border between the Middle Empire and the barbarians, had a defensive aspect since it was in the extension of the Han wall, but also allowed to control and tax everything that entered or was coming out of China. This "Silk Road" offered two possibilities: the northern route which passed through Aksu, Kucha, or the southern one, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Yutian and Qarkilik. These roads skirting the Tien Shan mountains to the north and the Pamir and Kunlun mountains to the south, made it possible to bypass the Taklamakan desert, one of the largest, most arid and dangerous in Asia. These roads, crossing large oases, provided rest for animals and men. These oases were important crossroads of civilizations.


The different "Silk Roads".


Marco Polo on the Silk Road. Catalan Atlas. XIIIth century. BNF Paris.

In Central Asia, the “Silk Road”, known as the Great Caravan Route, was used for trade between the peoples of Turkestan and the Chinese. The first imported silk, tea and porcelain in exchange for nephrite jade and horses. But it is nephrite jade which will be the most precious commodity in the eyes of the Chinese and which will maintain the activity of this caravan route until the 18th.rd century.
These peoples of Central Asia, of Indo-European origin, speaking Tokharian and former Iranian, have been more or less amalgamated with Turkic populations following invasions and their descendants are the Sogdians, Uyghurs, Kirghiz, Turkmens. These oases were also a crossroads of meeting between the different religions: Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, shamanism, Christianity and Islam which will eventually prevail.
These nomadic tribes, considered barbaric by the Chinese, paid a tribute to the emperor during an annual ceremony, thus accepting a status of vassal, and received gifts in return.
The jade for the Chinese was of considerable importance because it was associated with the emperor and the most perfect representation of the principle of the that, dispenser of life.
The fascination of the Chinese for jade in general and for the white jade of Khotan in particular is due to the rarity and (relative) hardness of this mineral which symbolizes temporal as well as spiritual power. Like the emperor, he is considered an intermediary between heaven and the earthly world. During the ceremonies, the emperor used jade emblems of different shapes and colors. White jade was tied to the person of the emperor and his trade was a state monopoly. The emperor was the only one who could write on jade plates. More than any other stone, jade has been a symbol of power and prestige, jade plates adorning the belts of nobles and officials, and their colors serving to indicate the rank of the dignitary.

river-Hotan, Khotan

The Yarkand River


Jade pebbles on the khotan market.

Confucius speaks of jade in these terms: " Jade is precious not because it is rarer, but because the quality of the jade corresponds to the virtue of a man. It corresponds to virtues such as benevolence, wisdom, righteousness, decorum, loyalty and fidelity. Jade is soft and pleasant, just like the benevolence of a good man. Jade has a fine texture but it is solid, just like a man's wisdom and his diligent and thorough way of handling things. Although jade has edges and corners, it is not sharp and cannot hurt others. It is the same with the sense of justice and righteousness of a good man. When the jade is hung, it symbolizes a man's restraint and polite caution. When struck, it releases a clear, crisp sound, similar to the nature of music. Although jade is graceful, its imperfections are also evident but will not obscure its merits, just like the loyalty of a man without prejudice and without the need for concealment. In addition, the color of jade can be seen from all angles. Much like the reliability of a good man, his behavior is consistent with his words. Even in a dark room, he is trustworthy and cannot deceive others. The jade […], in the water, embellished the river. When it rests on the mountain, the grass becomes lush. Wherever it is found, jade has a positive effect. Likewise, the noble attitude of a good man can harmonize a myriad of things and make those around him enjoy them. People everywhere are fond of jade and it is so because they respect and admire the virtue of a man ».


Jade pendant depicting a dragon. Western Han. XNIXXth century BC JC


Cicada in jade. Western Han. 2eme-1er s. BC. JC


Jade belt ornaments. Ming. National Palace Museum. Taiwan.

Jades were classified into five varieties according to their color: “ it can be white as fat, yellow as cooked chestnuts, black as varnish, red as the crest of the cock, finally green more or less dark and more or less translucent »But the carnelian is called« jade of fire » huoyu and the rock crystal "water jade", Shuiyu.
Jade has enjoyed Chinese favor throughout the centuries and is at the origin of a lucrative trade and artistic production that has not been known in the West. This explains that the caravans that passed through Khotan were buying jade that they knew could resell in China by making a comfortable profit.
The Chinese lapidaries have always preferred to use the pebbles caught in rivers with blocks extracted from the mines although they are smaller. This stone, very hard, is polished and its work is long and difficult. The artisans used quartz abrasive sand to carve and carve the jade. At 18rd s., the Qing bring in blocks extracted from the Kunlun mountains of an exceptional size, these “mountains” ranging from 1500 to 4500 kilos. One of these "mountains", carved in the city of Yangzhou, is still found in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Following climatic disturbances that buried caravan cities in the sands, the southern route was partly abandoned in favor of the northern route, however less safe.
If the caravan route was in competition from the 14rd s. by the sea route, it was practically abandoned at 18rd s. when China started importing Jadeite from Burma.
Even today, jade objects or jewelry are sold all over China and Chinatowns around the world because the stone has kept its symbolic life-giving and fortifying principle Yang.


Archaising vase with lid. White jade. 19th s. © lyonturnbull


Work of openwork decoration. Illustration of jade work (Yuzuo tu). 1906.


jadeite incense vase. 19th c. © sotheby's



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