In Chinese culture, jade symbolizes nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality

The word "jade" for the west communicates a sense of mystery. In Chinese, "jade"(yu) refers to a fine, beautiful stone with a warm colour and rich lustre that is skilfully and delicately carved. In Chinese culture, jade symbolizes nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality.

Jade remains a symbol for the magnificence of Chinese culture over many millennia. Skillfully carved and decorated jade objects can be worn or given as gifts. For Chinese people around the world, Jade has a special meaning as part of good luck pieces of astounding variety. These take the form of baubles, amulets, statues, jewelry, and more. Necklaces with carved jade figures or ideograms are very commonly worn. Statues of dragons, fish, figures, temples, and other scenic items are common in businesses and residences.

Chinese peoples have used jade for over 4,000 years. Because it was found on mountains and riverbeds it first represented heaven and Earth. By 2000 B.C., Chinese were using a circular jade disk with a hole cut out in the center called a Pi to symbolize the gods of the heavens and a tube with rectangular sides called a ts’ung to symbolize the spirits of the Earth.

According to ancient Chinese legend, the phoenix and the dragon are animal deities that were the life-source of family clans. For this reason, jade was often used as a material for carving phoenixes and dragons worn as ornaments. These ornaments symbolized the noble bearing of a gentleman, and are the origins of the Chinese saying: “The gentleman’s morals are like jade.”

Sacrificial and auspicious articles were used in ancient institutionalised rites, and are generally referred to as “ritual utensils.” Sacrificial utensils were used in offerings to ancestors or in paying ceremonial respect to the gods of heaven and earth. We know from archaeological remains that people of the Neolithic Era carved a great number of round pi and rectangular ts’ung for use as sacrificial utensils. The concept of a round heaven and rectangular earth, which eventually became deeply ingrained in the Chinese mind, may have first emerged around this time. “Auspicious utensils” were carried or worn by the nobility as symbols of their office or authority. For example, jade axes and spades later evolved into kuei, elongated pointed tablets of jade. When the “son of heaven,” or emperor, dispatched a duke, prince, or other official for external duty, he would give him a “tablet of authority” to proclaim the task assigned to him by the “son of heaven.” The traditional function of ritual jade utensils gradually began to wane after the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), when only a small number of sacrificial jade utensils were used in ceremonial rites led by the emperor.

The development of jade utensils after the Sung (960-1279 A.D.) and Yuan (1271-1368 A.D.) dynasties tended more towards pure craftsmanship and artistry. Except for a small number of ritual jade utensils set out by the emperor in sacrificial rites, the carving of large quantities of jade utensils in this era is attributable mainly to their sophisticated aesthetic appeal. The majority of carved jade items were ornamental in nature, including pieces for display and items for personal use. But ornamental jade display pieces were also used for reasons. Such articles included brush holders, brush washers, water cups, armrests, and red ink paste (for name chops) boxes. Fine and exquisite workmanship endowed each piece with richness, lustre, and delicacy, reflecting the high quality of life aspired to by the Chinese. Jade items for personal use included combs, hairpins, bracelets, and waist pendants. Jade ornaments were also set in walking sticks, waist sashes, garments, and caps.

Jade ornaments have remained popular up until the present day. Today in the Republic of China, the purchase, wearing, and giving of jade items as gifts is still very common. Jade is viewed as an ideal gift for couples making a mutual commitment, and for one’s children when they get married. Even now, the Chinese retain the idea that in addition to being beautiful, jade can protect from misfortune and bring good luck.

Jade is an essence produced through the natural forces of rivers and mountains over eons. However, if it is not skillfully cut and polished, there is no way for the potential richness and luster that people prize to be expressed. The Chinese have a saying that goes. “If jade is not properly cut, it cannot be made into a useful utensil.” Cutting is an important step in the process of producing jade articles.

The manufacture of Chinese jade articles was already highly developed by the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C). The Chinese of this period had the technolongy to produce jade articles of every imaginable type, shape, and size. By the end of the Chou Dynasty (11th century to 256 B.C.) and the beginning of the Han Dynasty, Chinese jades reached a second peak in their development. Craftsmen had at their disposal more advanced tools and efficient methods of polishing jade and creating unsurpassed masterpieces. One technique involed carving an article with several linked components out of a single piece of jade, demonstrating the high sophistication of the craftsman’s mastery. From this point on, jade craftsmen could accommodate practically any and every custmer demand in their work.

In the Republic of China today, the art of jade carving has reached yet another summit in its development. Traditional forms and modern styles are combined into striking new creations, and modern technology has greatly elevated the quality of workmanship. No longer is jade for the exclusive use of emperors and noblemen; just about everyone in the ROC has the means to own and wear jade. Beyond maintaining its historical role, jade artistry has been further developed with creativity and skill, and has become an indispensable part of everyday life. Jade remains an eternal symbol of China’s magnificent civilization.