Legends of Jade

By YANG YINING Chinatoday

Gold may be the world acknowledged international hard currency, but within the context of millennia-old Chinese culture, jade is infinitely more precious. There is an ancient Chinese saying: “Gold may be evaluated, but jade is priceless.”

In the China of 8,000 years ago, jade was regarded as a distillation of the essences of heaven and earth, and hence sacred. Its dominant role within Chinese history and culture makes jade and jade craft a symbol of Chinese civilization. Whereas \Western pre-history is chronologically composed of the stone, iron and bronze ages, based on archeological artifacts, China’s, as defined by a Chinese sword forger from 2,000 years ago, is classified under stone, jade and bronze eras of weaponry. During the Shang (1600-100 BC) and Zhou (770-256 BC) dynasties, jade broadswords and halberds were regarded as the ultimate symbols of power.

15 Towns for a Piece of Jade?

A decorative jade horse.

A decorative jade horse.

The He jade is China’s most famous. The story behind it goes back to 700 B.C., when a man named Bian He of the State of Chu observed a phoenix alighting on a mountain peak within what is now the Shennongjia Nature Reserve. He was convinced that treasure lay hidden in the mountain because, “The phoenix descends only on stones of jade,” according to Chinese mythology. After scouring the mountain summit, Bian He eventually found a large piece of uncut jade, which he took back to the State of Chu and proudly presented to King Li. But when the monarch called in a jade craftsman to verify its authenticity, the so-called expert adjudged it as worthless stone. Bian He was punished for this apparent deception by having his left foot cut off.

Jade duplicate of a bronze gui – a food receptacle.

Jade duplicate of a bronze gui – a food receptacle.

Upon King Wu’s succession to the throne, Bian He once more offered his treasure to the new ruler, but with the same result, and so forfeited his right foot. When King Wen came to power, Bian He took his treasure to the palace gate and stayed there, weeping bitterly, for seven days and nights. King Wen eventually sent a courtier to find out what grieved Bian He, as amputation was considered light punishment at that time. Bian answered that he did not mourn the loss of his feet but was heartsick that the precious gift he sought to give to his king had been mistaken for stone and that he, a loyal subject, perceived as a charlatan. King Wen ordered that the jade be cut open and it was then that the pure jade within it was finally revealed. It was named He Jade in honor of Bian He’s allegiance, and was accorded such reverence that the State of Qin expressed willingness to cede 15 of its towns in exchange for this fabulous treasure.

Bian He’s absurd sense of priority, whereby having both feet amputated was of small account in the light of his self-appointed quest to deliver treasure into the only ownership worthy of it – that of an emperor — reflects the Chinese obsession with jade and long-since obsolete concept of fealty.

Jade Mandate of Heaven

A jade dragon

A jade dragon

For more than a millennium following the life and times of Bian He, jade remained the symbol of supreme power in China, being so regarded by the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty; Emperor Gaozu, named Liu Bang, of the Han Dynasty; Emperor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty; and Emperor Taizong, named Li Shimin, of the Tang Dynasty.

Upon unifying China, the first Qin Emperor ordered craftsmen to fashion the He Jade into a seal and engrave it with the eight characters declaring its owner as possessor of “The Mandate of Heaven, longevity and eternal prosperity,” in other words, absolute imperial power. The conviction that the seal represented the mandate of heaven, and that its possessor was the Mandatory Son of Heaven, was upheld by succeeding dynasties.

It was in the late Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) that Liu Bang pipped Xiang Yu at the post as first of the two rebel leaders to attack the Qin palace and force Emperor Ziying to surrender the imperial seal. Liu Bang then vanquished Xiang Yu and established the Han Dynasty, renaming the erstwhile Qin imperial seal “Mandate Seal of the Han Dynasty.”

A jade dancing figure.

A jade dancing figure.

The next holder of the seal was Wang Mang, related to the imperial family by virtue of maternal blood ties, who usurped the throne of the two-year-old emperor of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). When Wang Mang demanded the imperial seal from the empress dowager, she threw it to the ground in anger. The slight damage it sustained was repaired in gold, and the seal was subsequently passed on to the Sui and Tang Dynasty emperors. Its last owner was Li Congke of the Latter Tang Dynasty, who suffered defeat at the hands of the Qidan (Khitan) army. Taking the seal, the deposed emperor fled to a tower and, in a last ditch attempt to salvage his honor, set it ablaze. Li Congke thus perished and the seal of mandate was lost forever.

The Jade Medium

As jade was believed to incorporate the essences of heaven and earth, it was used as a medium of communication between shamans and the gods, a specific type being allocated to each deity.

One of the rituals an emperor would perform upon assuming power was that of “casting dragon slips.” This involved the new ruler’s climbing to the summit of a well-known mountain and throwing down engraved slips of jade, notifying the mountain gods of his succession. When the emperor fell ill, his shaman would go to the mountain and cast jade slips engraved with prayers for the monarch’s recovery. This ritual has been confirmed in recent years by the discovery of such two jade slips at the foot of Huashan Mountain dating back to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), carved on either side with prayers for the recovery of the ailing King of Qin.

Jade duplicate of a bronze gu -- a wine cup.

Jade duplicate of a bronze gu -- a wine cup.

That jade was believed capable of warding off evil spirits is proven by discoveries of cong – a square prism pierced with a round hole — bearing crude depictions of shamans and their familiars. This precious substance was also a main aspect of funeral rituals, as it was believed to prevent corpses from putrefying. Excavated suits of jade sewn in gold thread are testament to this belief.

“Rather be a fragment of jade than a complete clay tile”

In Chinese proverbs, jade is a frequent metaphor for honor and virtue; each originates in a story.

The proverb: “Rather be a fragment of jade than a complete clay tile,” dates back to the year 550, when Emperor Xiaojing of the Eastern Wei Dynasty was ousted by his Prime Minister Gao Yang, who then established the Northern Qi Dynasty. The following year, Gao Yang killed Emperor Xiaojing and his three sons. In the tenth year following Gao Yang’s usurpation of the throne there occurred a solar eclipse — a bad omen in ancient China. Fear that this celestial phenomenon presaged a threat to his throne prompted Gao Yang to slay the 700 members of Emperor Xiaojing’s 44-family clan. When news of this atrocity reached the more remote branches of the imperial family, all were terrified of suffering a similar fate. At a gathering to discuss ways and means of escaping death, a county magistrate named Yuan Jing’an suggested adopting the surname Gao as a sign of loyalty to the Northern Qi Dynasty. Jing’an’s cousin Jinghao was contemptuous of this suggestion, saying, “Of what use is abandoning our ancestral clan merely to stay alive? A true man would rather die a fragment of jade than live as a complete clay tile.” Treacherous Yuan Jing’an reported his cousin’s brave words to Gao Yang, and Jinghao was arrested and summarily executed. After changing Jing’an’s family name to Gao, the emperor promoted him, but died of illness three months after Jinghao’s death. Eighteen years later the Northern Qi Dynasty perished. Jinghao’s brave words “Rather be a fragment of broken jade than a complete clay tile” may have cost him his life but nonetheless immortalized him, having been quoted over centuries by outstanding Chinese men and women of distinguished valor.

Jade Remedies

In bygone days, jade ornaments and jewelry denoted rank and status. High-born women, as celebrated in classical poetry, wore jade jewelry that swayed and jingled melodiously as they moved. But jade had more than a merely decorative function. It was commonly believed that mutual nourishment was engendered between a jade ornament and its wearer. This was based on the theory that when worn on the physical person, the spirit immanent in jade fuses with its wearer’s qi, a symbiosis apparent in the enhanced luster and even finer texture of jade worn by a host in good health whose complexion becomes clearer and physique stronger. Should the person wearing jade be in poor health it speeds his or her recovery.

A jade cup originally used to collect dew.

A jade cup originally used to collect dew.

Chinese ancients also wore jade as a sign of moral cultivation, evident in the saying that “A man of virtue does not remove jade from his person without good reason.” Confucius is believed to have likened jade’s pleasing smoothness to the human virtue of benevolence, its hardness to righteousness, its diversity of color to resourcefulness and its translucence to fidelity. In Chinese figurative speech jade is often associated with the womanly virtues of purity and chastity, the ideal woman being she who is “pure as jade and clear as ice.”

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