This ethnography is on Chinese jade. I wanted to see what were the cultural connotations of jade for the Chinese people. At the beginning of this term, I very much believed that jade was just an ornamental stone for the Chinese. I think this is so because I used to work at a jewelry shop. Also, many customers would ask me cultural questions about jade and I would not know how to answer them. This made me feel very awkward; first, because I was supposed to be knowledgeable about the products I sell and, second, because I was Chinese. These reasons pushed me to do research on jade in Chinese culture.


I began my ethnography by performing the basic researching techniques. I read through books, checked the web, and even read about Chinese art in my Kapiolani Community College art class. I felt more comfortable asking jade dealers about their product after gaining background knowledge about jade. This helped me to formulate questions that helped me better understand the significance jade to the Chinese. I did not want to just go up to a dealer and ask, “So what can you tell me about Chines jade?” The background information also helped me to understand some of the terminology dealers’ use in explaining jade. At certain times, I was able to ask some of my relatives about this precious stone. They told me only the most common and brief beliefs of jade. One merchant I spoke to was Joe Chan at Pacific Jade House. I chose this shop because it was closest to my working place. I spoke with Mr. Chan about three times over the phone, and went into his store once. This covered a span of about a month. I found out that there was more information in the books than what he could tell me. Mr. Chan did tell me certain things about jade that were not in books. All in all, Mr. Chan and the literature on jade gave me a very complete look at jade.


The Chinese admire jade above all other valuable minerals. Historically, for their contests, the first place winner would be awarded jade, the second place would be awarded gold, and the third place would be awarded ivory. The Chinese use jade to speak to Heaven and compare it to man’s most admirable attributes. Scholars and archers wore jade rings as a badge of honor. They also believed that jade helped a man realize the God-Nature relationship in man and is the closest material form of the Yin and the Yang. Jade is held highly in Chinese culture.

Jade is so precious that one piece of jade has caused many dramatic moments in Chinese history. Men have betrayed, stolen, fought, and died to obtain the Jade of Ho. Owning this piece, which is a seal made of jade, was the celestial sign of the Emperor’s right to the throne. It performed the same function as the Mandate of Heaven. Every Emperor possessed it since it was carved, whether through war, plots, or inheritance. It was the Chinese Holy Grail.

The jade that the Chinese speak so greatly of comes in two forms, nephrite and jadeite. Jadeite, a pyroxene, only forms under great pressure and heat. The required pressure and heat can be found twenty to thirty miles below the surface of the Earth. This type of jade, a silicate of aluminum is a microcrystalline and can be easily broken. When jadeite is polished, it is a very brilliant stone. Nephrite, an amphibole, forms closer to the surface through the reactions between calcium, magnesium, and water. Fifty tons of pressure is required to crush one cubic inch of nephrite. This makes it the world’s toughest stone, stronger than diamond. This silicate of magnesium is fibrous and hard to fracture. Nephrite’s appearance is generally soapy looking. It is through erosion that these rare minerals are brought up to civilization.

Jade, for the Chinese, comes in more mystical terms. One story has it that the Storm God, with one hand on a rainbow (jade comes in all colors) and another forging a jade ax, gave it to man to defend himself against his many predators. Another story, sticking more to history, says that when the Tartar barbarians (Mongols) invaded China, dragons cried for the people. When the tears came to Earth, they changed to jade. The earliest Chinese record, speaking highly of jade, says that when men first tested the stone, they threw it into a heated furnace and left it there for three straight days and nights. After they took it out, the stone had the same color, polish, and texture as before.

Jade was first found in the rivers of Chinese Turkestan, thus giving the rivers their names, Black Jade River and White Jade River. Women would gather jade from the rivers since it was believed that man would have a much harder time doing it. The reason was that women were a Yin force, and thus fared many betters in attracting jade, which was a Yang force. So the women would wade in the rivers and search, and they normally would be naked to enhance their Yin. This caused most mining to be done at night.

Later, jade was collected from the K’un Lun Mountains. The main mines now are in the Khotan and Yarkand regions. The Chinese traveled far from their villages to gather jade in boulders. They would sometimes be gone for more than a year. The miners would build charcoal fires on these stones to cause a temperature change in the rocks. Then wedges are forced into the cracks produced from the fires to break off boulders of jade. Another method used required that holes be drilled and filled with water. When winter came, the water will freeze to ice and crack the rock. Demand for jade has always exceeded the supply of it.

The earlier jade comes down to the present by a very interesting ritual. Because land for burial was scarce, the government and later Chinese culture expected people to unearth gravesites and cremate the deceased. During the unearthing, the jade buried with the deceased was taken out of the coffin and transferred to later generations of the family. These became heirlooms. However, when times were tough, many people had to sell this jade. These ancient pieces of jade got rarer and rarer. The Chinese soon stopped selling jade either because the economy picked up or because there was no more jade left to sell.

Jade comes in every color of the rainbow. The jade used in ancient Chinese jade pieces is mostly of the “mutton fat” variety. Mutton fat jade is a creamy white with blemishes of light green. These, however, have become rare. These older jades are made up of nephrite. Jade carved nowadays, jadeite, is mostly from Burma and can come in many colors. Pure jade, however, has a white, translucent color. The mineral deposits in the stone is what gives jade its color. Iron compound deposits usually gives a pale green, different browns, different yellows, different grays, black, or blue. Compounds of manganese usually give different grays, different blacks, or pink. And finally compounds of chromium usually produce an emerald green. Colors of jade have special meaning for the Chinese. Yellow can stand for Earth and Saturn. Black can mean water, North, or mercury. White may stand for air, metal, West, or Venus. Red can represent fire, South, or Mars. Green is associated with wood, East, or Jupiter. And finally blue might symbolize Heaven.


The Chinese used jade the stone of immortality, in worship and burial. Jade was a link that connected the Earth with Heaven. To worship Heaven, a sky blue Pi was used. The Pi is a flat, round disk with a hole in the middle, and represents heaven. ne form of the Pi is theorized to have came about because the stone can be suspended by a string and struck to make ritual music, or could have been a circular ax, sun disk, a sun shining through the vault of Heaven, or Heaven itself. It can be one inch in diameter to one foot across. The width of the center is usually 1/5 of the diameter. A yellow Ts’ung is used to worship the Earth. The Ts’ung is a round cylinder enclosed within a square (another way of visualizing it is a cylinder flanked by four prisms), and represents the Earth. The four corners of the Ts’ung represents the four cardinal directions and the four elements: water, fire, wood, and metal. And the fifth element, the Earth, is symbolized by the Ts’ung itself. In tombs, the Ts’ung is placed on the chest and abdomen of the body, With the Pi below the body, the soul is between Earth and Heaven.

The practice of using jade to worship ancestors started a long time ago, maybe about 10,000 B.C.E. In the ancestor halls of the Chinese, the ancestors are represented with jade tablets. These tablets are what the Chinese used to communicate with their ancestors. Worshipers would make sacrifices (sometimes with jade), pray, or just talk to the jade tablets. Jade would also be used in burials. These are known as tomb jades, and they are usually jade that was once made for the living, ritual jade to take to the world beyond, and specialized jade objects for the dead and to close the nine apertures of the human body. Jade amulets can be placed in the mouth with rice. Circular pieces of jade close the naval apertures. These pieces often times have tigers carved onto it to represent the Yin, female force. As an ancient text said, “Jade cannot prevent the living from dying, but it can preserve the corpse from decaying.”


The Chinese believed that jade was capable of many great things. An ancient text said that powdered jade, if taken internally, could cure anything from insomnia to flatulence. The Chinese believed that Jade could also convey awesome powers of invisibility and levitation, and carry more practical feats, such as preventing a person from being thrown off his horse. They also believed that jade, if worn, could heal physical ailments and ward off evil, misfortunes, and mischievous supernatural entities. Jade, used properly by a shaman, can also bring about any manner or number of grotesque beings.

Several myths relate jade with life and immortality. Some say that jade prolongs life. Others say that it can bring immortality if consumed in the right quantity. The Taoists believed they knew the ingredient to eternal life, jade, but did not know exactly how to use it, the proportions and quantity to be consumed, kinds of other substances to be mixed, and the auspicious conditions under which it was to be worn or taken. And if a person, right before death, swallowed five pounds of solution of jade, his or her corpse would not decay for three years.

Jade is thought to be able to help a person just by being in contact with it. The feel of cool jade is said to elevate and purify thoughts, to quiet the mind, and to induce a state of contemplation. It is also believed that frequent handling of jade will cause the stone to grow even more beautiful in sheen. According to one Chinese proverb, “Jade is cool because it comes from the essence of clear mountain streams.” Science says that jade is cool to the touch because it is a non-conductor.

Many Chinese believe that a jade stone eventually becomes a part of the life of its owner. Jade is said to change colors depending on the aura of its possessor. When he or she is down or depressed the jade might be a darker shade. If fortune is good, the stone might be of a lighter tint. It is also believed that when a jade piece cracks or breaks, it has shielded its holder from an evil and harmful event.


In addition to the jade’s color, the depiction of the carving has significance also. In general, most Chinese jade carvings represent animals, parts of animals, or mythical animals. Some of the favorite jade depictions are of horses, tigers, rabbits, birds, bats, fish, toads, tortoises, dragons, unicorns, phoenixes, and hydras. Gods and god like characters are also represented. Most of the animals depicted are usually more god like and represents natural forces more than they represent the animal.

One of the most revered mythical animals of the Chinese is the dragon. It is believed to be once a real animal, but has become extinct. Some say the dragon was merely how the Chinese saw the alligators that came when flood season was upon them. That is why they are often called bearers of rain. The dragon, however, has grown to represent many things. It is sometimes called the Guardian of the East and symbolizes Spring, courage, and Imperial Sovereignty. From the mouth of a dragon can come royal edicts, prophecies, and proclamations of Heaven, fire, and clouds that bring rain. The eastern dragon, which is capable of great deeds if one treated him reverently, is very different from the western dragon, which is evil and kidnaps princesses.

Buddhism brought many aspects to jade art. With the inception of Buddhism, jade soon depicted pagodas, mountain masses, and religious symbols. Some jade carvings were dedicated to depicting Buddhist figures for worship and were placed at temples. The necessity for these carvings soon led to the expanding of dimensions for jade carvings. The largest jade Buddha was over five feet high, three feet wide, and one foot deep. Prior to Buddhism, most jade carvings were relatively small.

Bodhisattvas are most loved by the Chinese. These are human beings that have reached the pinnacle of spiritual enlightenment but instead of going to Heaven they decide to stay on Earth and teach humanity how to reach enlightenment. Their favorite Bodhisattva is Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of mercy, also known as the Jade Goddess. She is the most widely depicted Bodhisattvas in jade art. She is the Maternal Goddess, Protector of Children, and observer of all sounds, and her jade carvings are often worshiped at temples by women. Kuan Yin is often depicted as a standing, slender figure of infinite grace and greatly composed to convey a sublime selflessness and compassion.

The story of how a jade boulder is turned into a precious piece that is so precious to the Chinese is an interesting one. It starts with the jade miners breaking off boulders from a mountain far from their village. After collecting enough boulders for a profitable outing, they return to their village with boulders and boulders of jade. Each boulder has its very own characteristics. Then comes the auctioning off of these boulders to individual merchants. The day before the auction is the only time prior to the auction that each merchant is allowed to inspect the individual boulders with great attention. On the day of the auction, each boulder is given a number to be referred by. The host, or the sin sang, of the auction is a large man with incredible memory and a great sense of duty. The sin sang begins by yelling out a number of boulders. All the merchants then proceed to him and, using their fingers, communicate their bid under long sleeves. This is how they kept the bids confidential. With all these merchants rushing toward the sin sang, it is beneficial if the sin sang is sturdy enough to withhold the rush. Only the sin sang knows the bids and he, by duty, is not allowed to tell another soul. After everyone bids, the sin sang, with his great memory, announces the winner.

The boulder is then brought back to the shop. Here it lies for inspection by the artisan and the shop owner. It might take a year before the artisan and shop owner finally decide how the boulder should be cut and used. They must be sure not to misuse the jade. Artisans normally have to be trained 4-5 years before they are allowed to handle the jade. And after that, they are not considered professional until about 10 years of practice. They are sometimes told to imagine jade pieces to be cut from the clouds, wood, and shadows for their training since jade is too rare to be practiced on.


After studying jade, I have realized that it is much more than an ornamental stone. If I had known this while I was working at the jewelry store, I probably would have been more confident about selling the product, and the customer would have appreciated just how important this stone is to the Chinese. There are many beliefs and myths that go hand in hand with jade in Chinese culture. I doubt I have teamed them all.

by Wai Yee Wang Choi

Ringling Asian Art Center.