Those seductive jades
" … the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her Kings barbaric pearl and gold …."
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
EDWARD Schafer's The Golden Peaches of Samarkand remains a source of perennial delight. All students of China have known the work for years, but, even now, each time one opens it, the whiff of exotica begins to waft in the air; one comes upon some delicious little detail, some new nugget of information. T'ang China - the dynasty ruled from AD 618 to 907 - is the period Schafer deals with, but his is not a conventional history book. He has put together a wonderfully rich and textured account of "T'ang exotics", all those luxurious and outlandish goods: "a cockatoo from Celebes, a puppy from Samarkand, a strange book from Magadha, a strong drug from Champapura", and the like, which captured the Chinese imagination in those stirring times.
There is an astonishing
range of things that the book speaks of , and that is why I might be
tempted to return to it from time to time, from animals both wild and
domestic, furs and feathers, plants and food and aromatics, to textiles
and pigments, metals and industrial minerals, and images both secular
and sacred. The various agencies through which things like ostriches and
shark skins, chitragandha and saffron flower, alum and ice-silkworms,
came into the country or went out of it to peripheral lands, and little
anecdotes that formed for centuries a part of Chinese lore, are all
woven into the account with skill and flair.
Among the first of the precious stones that is spoken of at length is, however, jade. And with that are associated tales and details, for jade was as much an object of desire here in India as it was in China. Interestingly, even though the 'ancient and honourable' art of jade-cutting went far back into the past, the material itself was not Chinese. In old lore and in imagination, jade was the stone of the holy mountains at the centre of the world continent, and the Chinese still speak mysteriously of 'a Jade Mountain which is the dwelling place of the Royal Mother of the West', who has the appearance of a human being, but is leopard-tailed and tiger-toothed. The profane counterpart of this immortal mountain of dreams was, however, the old city of Khotan on the southern silk route through Serindia, and the white jade and deep green jade required by the lapidaries of T'ang continued to come from that city. There pebbles of jade were found in the bed of a river, and people referred to the place as "full of moonlight".
But myths and folklore apart, there was this passion for jades in China that led to the exquisite craftsmanship that one sees in objects made from this precious, but very hard to work with, material. As early as the Neolithic times, there was a whole polished stone industry that one finds there. And then, with the passage of time, there showed up dazzlingly carved objects made from jade, like royal sceptres, 'astrological jades' with which royal stargazers took their sightings, 'funerary jades' that played a role in ceremonies connected with death, girdle ornaments, sword fittings, buckles, scabbard mounts, body ornaments, finger rings. In China, jade had come to stand for the physical beauty of women, on the one hand, and for the magical powers that it conferred upon the 'son of Heaven', the Emperor, on the other hand. It was a part of people's lives like no other precious stone was. And it was sacred, for it was from it that one of the most precious Buddha statues in early China was made.
A range of references
In the introduction to his book, Edward Schafer offers an explanation of the uncommon, although poetic, title. It was chosen, he says, because "it suggests simultaneously the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, the Peaches of Immortality placed by Chinese tradition in the distant West, James Elroy Flecker's Golden Journey to Samarkand, and Frederick Delias's music for the 'Golden Road to Samarkand' in Flecker's play, Hassan."
Who would have guessed?