The Meaning of Jade in Chinese Culture

What Is Jade?

Jade is a gemstone. However, it is important to note that it is not a single mineral but rather two minerals. First, there is nephrite, which is sometimes called soft jade. Second, there is jadeite, which is sometimes called hard jade. Whatever the case, the two minerals collected under the name of jade have not been winners for a limited time only, as shown by their lasting popularity in China.

Why Is Jade So Valued in Chinese Culture?

The Chinese love jade. For proof, look no further than the fact that the Simplified Chinese character for “country” can be looked upon as the Chinese character for “jade” being protected by a wall. This is because jade was seen as being so valuable that it became synonymous with value to a significant extent, as shown by the existence of numerous sayings reflecting such sentiments. One example is a line stating that gold has a value whereas jade is invaluable, while another example is a line that translates to something along the lines of “clear as ice and clean as jade,” which means “pure and noble.”

With that said, it is unclear when the Chinese became fascinated with jade. This is because said fascination seems to extend back to the earliest cultures that can be recognized as being Chinese. For example, the Shang kings are known to have been buried with a wide range of items made out of either jade or bronze, which speaks volumes about the regard with which they beheld these two materials. Likewise, their successors in later periods were no less enamored with the precious stone, as shown by various examples from various periods. For example, the First Emperor of China had the Imperial Seal of China carved out of a famous piece of jade called He’s Jade Disc, which earned its name because a man named Bian He is said to have offered the stone containing the jade to three successive kings who punished him for being a liar because they failed to see the treasure therein. Likewise, the royals of the Han Dynasty were known to have used jade burial suits, which remain one of the most lavish uses of the precious stone that have ever been conceived. In part, this is because each burial suit consisted of thousands and thousands of pieces of jade. However, it should also be noted that the pieces had to be sewn together using golden thread, which must have required an enormous amount of time and effort. Based on these examples, it is no wonder that the ancient Chinese saw jade as something that was limited only to the winners.

Of course, the value of jade meant that it picked up a wide range of positive beliefs within a short period of time. For instance, the Chinese philosopher Confucius stated that jade represented not one but rather a total of 11 virtues. One example was how its brilliance represented purity, while its compact hardness represented the surety of intelligence. Considering the influence that Confucius has had on the whole of Imperial China as well as more than one of its neighboring countries, it is no coincidence that the Confucian gentry became as fond of the precious stone as kings and emperors. Likewise, jade received a fair amount of attention from the spiritual side of things as well, as shown by the numerous people who believed that mere proximity to jade could help them live happier, healthier lives because of its purity. In fact, there are still plenty of Chinese people who wear jade bangles because of a semi-popular belief that it can help with rheumatism.

Further Considerations

Chinese civilization has seen enormous changes over the centuries, but it seems that certain Chinese values have managed to stand the test of time much better than others. One example is the Chinese love of jade, though it is amusing to note that it has seen its fair share of change as well. This can be seen in how hard jade wasn’t introduced to China until the 19th century, which resulted in the Confucian gentry sticking to soft jade while the more nouveau riche flocked to the new luxury good. With that said, it seems safe to say that neither soft jade nor hard jade will be limited time only winners so long as the Chinese people continue to thrive, not least because the sheer size of Mainland China as well as the Chinese diaspora will be able to support a lot of jade-mining operations for the foreseeable future.