Artifacts of Material History

Chinese Jade: The Stone of Eternity

Chinese Qing Dynasty Jade ca. 1730-95, “Philosopher’s Repose” Jade Mountain (image public domain, courtesy of the British Museum, London)

By Patrick Hunt – 

Jade is well known globally as a stone with innate translucent beauty, lustrous and vibrant in many shades of mostly green, although lavender and orange hues also variously show. What we name jade mostly comes in either jadeite or nephrite mineral varieties, and both are very hard stones with a Mohs hardness range between 6-7, and therefore very difficult to work with the tools available in antiquity. But China had been working jades since the Neolithic for at least five thousand years, and the extremely high Chinese valuation of jade (generically as yu in Chinese) has given it the epithet of the “stone for eternity”, not just because its hardness also somewhat guarantees its durability over time but also because it was metaphysically associated with eternal life. Not only were elites buried in jade armor suits of hundreds of small jade prices wired together but some emperors even drank ground up jade for longevity.

There is a legendary early Chinese fable about jade and a man named Bian Heh. This tale, sometimes with slightly different details, is from the Chu Period (1100-221 BCE) and is told by Minghua Zhang, among many others, as a lesson in later China about undervaluing precious things like rough jade whose inner secrets may be hidden. Jade hunter Bian Heh found a rough stone on Mount Chu that he knew was precious jade inside although its dull and rough surface gave no clue to what was hidden underneath in the interior. Bian Heh gave it unpolished as a gift to King Chuli to show his respect. But the court jade experts only looked at its surface and judged it to be merely a common rock. The king, no doubt feeling mocked by Bian Heh, was angry and ordered amputation of Bian Heh’s left foot and the rock thrown out with him. After this, the mutilated Bian Heh waited until the next king Chuwu was enthroned. Still having the offending unpolished jade, he re-offered it to the new king in hope of clearing his name. Again, after only a surface examination, these court jade experts also deemed it worthless, and the second angry king Chuwu followed the same sentence as his predecessor, similarly having Bian Heh’s right foot amputated and the stone thrown away a second time. Now a cripple only able to move with assistance, a defeated and totally scorned Bian Heh reclaimed his unpolished jade from the trash heap.

Old and considered useless, Bian Heh outlived this second king too and new king Chuwen followed. At the accession of Chuwen, the old Bian Heh wept for days on a hill just outside the city, loudly crying out against injustice as punished for his loyalty and the idiocy of the so-called stone experts. His voice was heard and soon reported to the new king, who asked his ministers why the old man was calling for justice. They told the king the story of the man who had lost two feet but still held tenaciously to his rock’s rarity. This new king Chuwen had empathy, thinking that no man would make such a sacrifice for a lie. He ordered his men to bring the cripple Bian Heh on a litter to his palace with the stone the man clung to so tenaciously. When they arrived, this time the king ordered his jade cutters to cut open the stone in front of him. Astonished, they found it beautifully translucent inside and indeed a jade of rarest beauty under the rough, dull surface. It was soon carved and polished into a fabulous piece of jade jewelry and Bian Heh was finally rewarded. The king even named this piece of jade the Bian Heh jade. Even now, taken from this Chinese fable the term “Bian’s Jade” is a term for something of great value after being mistakenly thought worthless.[2]

The painstaking and laborious skills needed to carve hard stone jade without breaking required years of experience in China before mechanized power tools. When links or chains of jade connect to pieces that were each carved together from a single stone, it is astonishing to see such virtuoso consummate pieces, as seen here below in a Qing Dynasty piece from the Stanford Museum – Cantor Center for the Visual Arts.

Chinese Qing Dynasty Jade Vessel with Chain Links on right circa 1730-95, Stanford Museum – Cantor Center for the Visual Arts (Photo P. Hunt 2012)

In China and Burma, green jade was the “Stone of Heaven” praised by Confucius, and where many also believed that heaven itself was made of jade, as written in the Book of Changes (I Ching) where it was described as being “cut out of a rainbow”. Nephrite – amphibole silicate made up of actinolite – Ca2(Mg, Fe)5Si8O22(OH)2 – mixed with calcium, magnesium or iron in crystals that have a fibrous appearance – was termed ruan yu or “soft jade” whereas jadeite – sodium aluminum silicate NaAl(Si2O6) – was termed ying yu or “hard jade.”The historical uses of jade prove its worth is not usually pragmatic but that possessing it was usually a sure sign of elite status.

In China, jade has always been and still is the quintessential material to elevate anything by carving a faithful rendering. Peonies and butterflies are lovely enough in their own right, but jade copies seem to make these ephemera immortal. Chrysanthemums are the flower of old age, as many Chinese poems of old sages praise them, because they bloom in fall and early winter as a metaphor for the winter of a long life. Some jade chrysanthemum flowers are so wonderfully carved that every petal is individual and natural enough to be from a live model that dried and withered long before the laborious craftsman had finished transforming it into a jade token of the eternal. As Han Chinese historian Hsin-Mei Hsu told me, “The West reveres gold, silver and gems as the most precious, where China has assigned most precious status given to jade, silk and bronze.” There is even a term, “Jade Emperor” a Daoist idea linking heaven and earth by a metaphor for a celestial equivalent of an earthly ruler. Even celadon, the famous Chinese porcelain glaze – mostly composed of iron oxide and fired in an oxygen-reduced kiln – is in honored imitation of the pale light green jade. For millennia, carved jade cicadas had been placed on bodies to protect them in the afterlife since the Han period. Even more touching may be the personal small jade paperweights and even jade ink brush pots, some exquisite examples of which exist in the British Museum’s collection of Asian art. Other stunning examples also exist as jade screens, filled with intricate carved village scenes. They can even be called “Philosopher’s Reposes”, given by the emperor to brilliant court advisors. These imperial counselors were chosen for mental prowess on national exams throughout many dynasties and their careers as bureaucrats were often long and honorable, but nonetheless not always easy. When they wished to get away from the urban routines of the teeming court without leaving their desks, they were encouraged to take a “mental vacation”   by meditating on the rural scenes of such jade paperweights and the like. One memorable Qing Dynasty translucent jade screen about 20 centimeters square is covered with a relief of steep pine-forested mountains and bamboo groves – individual branches are even carved with small open air arbors scattered about that are reachable only by bridges.

Other Chinese jade treasures include snuff bottles, miniatures rarely more than 8 centimeters high that are carved out of lovely gray-green or deep green fei cui jade. Snuff was itself a precious royal commodity in the Qing Dynasty court. High status was conferred when the emperor gave a favorite concubine a snuff bottle, but this status often had a downside: sometimes these concubines were secretly killed by their jealous competitors over the snuff bottles, which were then stolen and disappeared. Court records hint the equally lovely perpetrators were rarely found or punished over these unsolved crimes of beautiful but strangled concubines hidden in out of the way places of an imperial palace, their flaunted jade snuff bottles missing and the murder trail leading nowhere.

I’ve also spent hours peering at one mesmerizing jade paperweight in the British Museum’s Asian Gallery in London. If one looks closely at one of these jade “paperweights” (lead image above) shaped in general like a small peak, under the towering and sheer jade cliffs in miniature are tiny bridges that lead to remote and peaceful jade pavilions and cabins shaded by leafy jade trees hidden away in the mountains. Framed in the miniscule windows under the lovely carved overhang of eaves that are barely a sixteenth of an inch in height, one can barely see a long-bearded jade philosopher tranquil under his straw hat rendered in beautiful stone. A foaming stream flows down the jade mountain where the carp are too tiny to see and so must be imagined. Such a sanctioned idyll no doubt worked to bring repose to the wise courtier and exemplifies well the Chinese value of jade as the luxurious substance of dreams no one can tax. This lovely jade object never fails to bring a smile to my face.


[1]  Some of this article is excerpted from a chapter on jade in my book Philosopher’s Stones: Seven Stones That Rocked the World. Forthcoming 2023.

[2] Minghua Zhang. Chinese Jade: Power and Delicacy in a Majestic Art. Shanghai: Long River Press, 2004, 3.

[3]  Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark. The Stone of Heaven: The Secret History of Imperial Green Jade. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 2001, 8.