While such items are prized in China, there is a substance which can command an even higher price than than these rare metals and stones. That substance is jade [Yù, 玉] a type of metamorphic rock composed of silicate minerals.
Highly prized & highly priced
Prices vary considerably with some jade items costing only a few Chinese yuan. However, some items can cost hundreds or even thousand of Chinese yuan. Indeed in the last few years, the price of the finest “mutton fat” jade has skyrocketed to nearly 19,000 RMB an ounce, more than $3,000, making it far more valuable than gold.
For the uninitiated, jade is just a cold, hard stone which varys in colour from a light creamy white to a dark emerald green or even black. It may even assume other colours such as orange or yellow. In China it is the “mutton fat” jade [Yáng zhī yù, 羊脂玉] which is most sought after. So called for its light creamy white colour, the stone can fetch hundreds of dollars even before it has been machined and carved into ornate and decorative items. Less sought after is Chicken Bone Jade [Jī gǔ yù, 鸡骨玉] which may be rather grey in colour.
However some jade is also prized for its unusual qualities. The natural stone may be wrapped about other rocks or have beautiful patterns and colours running through it. Such qualities are looked for by the craftsmen who may spend many days or weeks carving a piece of jade into an ornate piece of jewellery or sculpture.
Jade is found all over the world, but China is arguably the biggest consumer of the rock. Thus, much of the jade mined in places around the globe is exported to China. Indeed some 500 tonnes of jade is exported every year from Russia to China while one company in Canada alone sends around 300 tonnes a year.
Nonetheless, China still mines some of the most sought after types of jade. Hetian in Xinjiang is particularly famous for its high-quality pure white and often flawless nephrite jade.
Hetian jade has a history of more than 2,000 years and the region was once so abundant in jade that people could easily find it on the ground. Such times are long gone however and now , according to current statistics, the annual output of Hetian jade is only around 20 to 30 tonnes. However there is no immediate shortage on this precious rock. In fact it is estimated that the entire reserve of nephrite is between 220,000 to 280,000 tonnes according to data from the Xinjiang Gem Association. At current extraction rates it will be more than 200 years before supplies are exhausted.
As well as its beauty, jade has a special place in Chinese culture for its symbolic value. According to some scholars its warmth in terms of its lustre and brilliance is considered a quality of kindness. Meanwhile it is also said to possess a quality of wisdom and purity.
Additionally, a piece of jade will assume more symbolism depending upon the type of object carved.
Jade may be carved into religious items such as a Buddha. But animals and plants are just as popular. The stone may be carved into mythical creatures such as the dragon and phoenix, symbols that together are often associated with marriage.
Another symbol often associated with such ideas is the fish, or more specifically the carp. The carp is a commonly seen visual pun because the Chinese character for carp [Lǐ, 鲤] is pronounced almost the same as both the character [Lì, 利] for "profit" and the character [Lì,力] for "strength" or "power".
The carp is also a symbol for an abundance of children because it produces many eggs. And a pair of carp is often used to symbolize a harmonious marriage.
A frequently seen image is of a carp swimming and leaping against the current of a river to reach the spawning grounds. This refers to the legend [Lǐyú tiào lóngmén, 鲤鱼跳龙门] in which a carp is able to leap over the mythical "Dragon Gate" and become a dragon. This is an allegory for the persistent effort needed to overcome obstacles.
For most people the attraction is the sheer beauty of the stone itself rather than its symbolism or cost. And while many pieces will certainly hit your bank balance, there is a much quoted Chinese phrase which says, “Gold has a value; but jade is invaluable" [Huángjīn yǒu jià yù wú jià, 黄金有 价玉 无价].
Tourists on package tours are often taken to many a jade market, and even visitors travelling independently will see jade almost everywhere. Hopefully this won’t make one too jaded about this precious stone.