Stone from heaven
Jade, a semi-precious stone, found its expression, both as a material and symbol, in China,
says B. N. Goswamy

"When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade."

"Without being worked, jade cannot be shaped into a vessel; without being educated, people cannot be shaped into virtuous citizens."

"If a ruler perfectly observes the rites of the state, white jade will appear in the valley."

"Gold is valuable but jade is priceless."

Five birds among peony blossoms: openwork ornament made of snow-white jade. Yuan dynasty; 13th century; China
Five birds among peony blossoms: openwork ornament made of snow-white jade. Yuan dynasty; 13th century; China

Each of these four sayings comes from China of old. The firm but quiet tone, the emphasis on moral virtues, the belief in heavenly intervention, are all unmistakably Chinese. Two of them are attributed to Confucius, that great thinker and near contemporary of the Buddha. And whatever else they tell, they tell one certainly of the value that was attached in China to that wonderful, translucent gemstone: jade.

Jade entered my awareness when I visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei long years ago where I saw for the first time gallery after gallery devoted to jade: rocks, working techniques, superb artefacts. Ordinarily, I do not take great interest in precious stones, and know little about them, but my curiosity had been aroused by the debate going on then in art history circles about where some of the great objects from Mughal India — the exquisite Shahjahan jade cup, for instance; jade hilts of some imperial daggers; elegantly crafted archers’ rings made of jade — might conceivably have been made. Some scholars were then making the point that jade carving was unknown to Indian craftsmen, and therefore all jade artefacts found in our land must have come from outside, most likely from China which was the home of jade and jade workmanship; others thought differently.

My doubts were set at rest quickly, however, by this single visit to that great museum. For there was a whole large section in it devoted exclusively to ‘Indian techniques of working in jade’, together with some fine Indian objects on display. There was clear acknowledgement of, and respect for, Indian jades. For me that settled the matter of those exquisite Mughal objects. After that, jade somehow went out of my system except, only occasionally, when someone drew my attention to a finely made ‘hauldili’, as it is called: a piece of carved jade set in a pendant and worn round the neck as protection against some ailments in the northern parts of India.

By no means was jade, or the value of jade, confined to China or India, even to Asia. The stone, with its shades of white, grey, black, yellow, orange, and its delicate violet tones, has been known to man for close to 7000 years, and prehistoric man is believed to have used it simply for its toughness, since the material was ideal to make weapons and tools from. Among the pre-Columbian people of central America — the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Olmecs — the material was held in great esteem; the Maoris of New Zealand, one reads, carved cult instruments from native jade; in ancient Egypt, it was admired as the stone of love and harmony. But, without doubt, it was in China that the stone found its noblest expression, both as material and as symbol. There — the name for it is yu, ‘the royal gem’ — it became an object of the highest cultural value. That wise and great man, Confucius, who always thought in terms of de or virtues, saw in the stone as many as 11 virtues present.

In an oft-quoted passage, he listed them, saying that jade is like virtue itself: its polish and brilliancy representing purity; its perfect compactness standing for sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice; the pure and prolonged sound, which it gives forth when one strikes it, represents music. Its colour, he went on to add, represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth. Used alone without ornamentation it represents chastity. Truly, he concluded: "When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade."

In China, where there was this constant quest for the magical elixir of life, for longevity and immortality, jade held strong appeal for the commoner and scholar-official alike. Given its cultural significance, the stone was put to an astonishing number of uses. The most elaborate jewellery was made, using it; objects for the scholar’s studio — brush rests, paper-weights, seals and the like — were fashioned from it; snuff bottles and gift boxes; precious-looking but effective weapons; the mystifying Neolithic ‘Bi’ discs the true meaning of which has still not been decoded; above all, exquisite sculptures. And this despite the fact that jade, because of its extreme hardness, is a difficult stone to work in. One knows that it cannot be carved — even though the term ‘jade carving’ is often used to describe figurines made of it — it must be worn away by abrasion, with tools and hard sand pastes, the process requiring immense patience.

With that in mind, one cannot but admire, and hold in something kin to affection, the remarkable skill with which exceedingly complex objects were produced in such large numbers in China. Like the small but delicately fashioned openwork object that accompanies this piece, now in the Beijing Museum. Casually seen, the sculpture, showing five birds among peony blossoms, appears purely decorative, a pleasant natural scene with a group of birds in exuberant foliage. But nothing is without meaning. For here the scene, as interpreted by experts, is imbued with Confucian dogma. The five birds — a phoenix, a crane, a mandarin duck, a wagtail, and an oriole — symbolise, in the Chinese way of thought, wulun or the Five Social Orders and Relationships, the very foundation of a harmonious society.

The piece is brilliantly crafted, even if one has to know Chinese thought to be able to arrive at its meaning. Meanwhile, however, one has also to look for the five birds, for some of them seem to be hiding in the lush blossoms.