Building a bridge to heaven, Secrets of Jadeite
In humanity's entire recorded history, there has never existed a more intimate relationship between a culture and a stone than that between the Chinese and jade. To the people of the Middle Kingdom, jade was not simply hardened earth – but, instead, solid magic – a tiny piece of heaven bequeathed by the gods to those of us destined to suffer here on earth. It was literally the link between heaven and earth, the bridge that allowed mortals to cross into immortality.
Up until the 13th century, "jade" was nephrite, a tough, white-to-green amphibole rock that was the ideal canvas for China's stone carving artists. Then, according to local lore, a Yunnan trader traveling through northern Burma picked up a boulder to balance the load on his mule. The stone proved to be jade, of a quality such that Chinese connoisseurs were sent into ecstasy. He had found jadeite, a brown-skinned mineral whose creamy insides combined the toughness of nephrite with the vivid green of emerald. The Chinese were smitten, head-over-heels in love with a stone found only at one locality in northern Burma.
Building a bridge to heaven, Secrets of Jadeite Video
When this more attractive form of jade appeared, the first order of business was to find the source. Yunnan's governor immediately dispatched an expedition to search for the mines, but it returned empty-handed, unable to locate the source. A second group was sent in the 14th century, but none returned, all perishing from malaria or at the hands of hostile Kachin hill tribes. Thus the source of the vivid green stone eluded even the Chinese. Every now and then small pieces of jadeite would appear in China, but their origin was to be an unsolved mystery for the next 500 years.
The breakthrough came in 1784, when the emperor, Qianlong (1736–96), of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) extended Chinese jurisdiction into northern Burma. Adventurous bands of Chinese soon discovered the source of the green stone, and from this date forward, considerable amounts of jadeite were transported from the mines to Beijing, where the world's finest jade carvers were located. Qianlong preferred the rich hues of this "new" jade (jadeite). By the 19th century, the top quality, with its combination of high transparency and rich fei-ts'ui ('kingfisher') green color, was designated "imperial jade."
By 1798, a well-established route for jadeite from Burma to China existed. Although it had to be altered several times to avoid bandits and political changes, the jade road through Yunnan operated throughout British colonial times, right up until World War II.
The Second World War brought an end to colonialism and, in its aftermath, the rise of a communist regime in China. Hard-core communists had no need for "bourgeois" vanities such as jade. Thus, for the first time in over five millennia, China turned its back on the Stone of Heaven. Thereafter, the trade of jade burrowed underground, largely shifting to Hong Kong, where carvers from Beijing and Shanghai soon followed.
But the communist regime was to be an aberration. Not long after Mao was safely in his grave, whispers about jade soon became an open craving – and again mules plodded on their tortuous journey from Burma's mines to the markets and workshops of China. Once again, the famous jade road was open.
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