Jade, Burma’s Green Glory

Burma, since 1989 also called Myanmar, is famous for various things and jade is definitely one of them. To be sure, this article is about Burmese jade but when writing (and speaking for that matter) about jade, in general, and Burmese jade, in particular, it is imperative to include China for not only is China the world’s largest market for jade but it also played and still plays a very important role with respect to the topic Burmese jade, and that in more than one way.

Chinese were the first to mine jade in China beginning from about 6.000 BC., and that at a very large scale in order to meet the strong domestic demand, which is explainable by the fact that China has a jade ware culture and Chinese are captivated by this stone. They were also the reason for the beginning of the first large scale mining and trading in Burma that took place in response to increasing demand for jade – more precisely phrased jadeite – during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). Back then Jade was traded to China through Yunnan via caravan trade. Not only are the Chinese now as ever the by far largest buyers of Burmese jade (up to 75 percent of the total production) but they do also run most of the major jade mining, processing and trading operations in Burma’s jade industry after winning concessions from the Burmese government. This makes clear beyond doubt why I am saying that China played and still plays a very important role connected to the topic jade in Burma.

Jade trade in Burma, which dates back to the Pyu, has till the 14th century taken place on a rather small scale. The reason for this was that neither the Pyu nor any of the people (Kachin, Shan, etc.) inhibiting the areas in question attributed contrary to the Chinese any financial and/or cultural value to jade. And it is first and foremost the latter that makes jade so highly sought after. In other words, it is superstitiousness that makes jade so valuable and not jade itself for jade is hardly suitable for being worn solely for matters of beautification.

In Chinese culture jade takes a very prominent place for the Chinese attach supernatural powers to jade. Examples of this are that the wearer of jade is as they believe protected against disaster, that wearing jade functions as a sort of ‘early warning system’ because the jade will on the eve of a bad event break and that good fortune lays ahead is heralded by the jade’s appearing more brilliant and translucent as usual. That much to the in China popular beliefs associated with jade. Oh no, wait, here is another example that I do personally like very much. It was believed that using opium pipes with mouthpieces made of jade would bestow longevity on opium smokers.

Up to the 13th century jade was to Chinese jade carver synonymous with nephrite. However, after the discovery that green jade of a vivid green and brilliance never seen before (jadeite) occurred in north Burma had been made, this chanced. Before long the Chinese royalties and elite fell deeply in love with this new kind of jade. The search for the source of this beautiful jade was on. It took the Chinese a very long time and a large number of Chinese who paid with their lives for the dream of a life in riches to find out where exactly this jade came from.

In the following I give you an excerpt from William Griffith’s ‘Journals of Travels in Assam, Burma, Bootan, Affghanistan, and the Neighbouring Countries’ describing the a.m.

“The jade stone or nephrite has been known in China from a copper mugs australia period of high antiquity. It was found originally in Khoten and other parts of Central Asia, and being of a brilliant white colour and very costly, it was held in high esteem as symbolical of purity in private and official life. The green variety of the stone seems to have been extremely rare, but not entirely unknown, for attempts are recorded to produce its colour artificially by burying white jade in juxtaposition with copper. The discovery that green jade of fine quality occurred in Northern Burma was made accidentally by a small Yunnanese trader in the thirteenth century. The story runs that on returning from a journey across the frontier he picked up a piece of stone to balance the load on his mule. The stone proved to be jade of great value and a large party went back to procure more of it. In this errand they were unsuccessful, nobody being able to inform them where the stone occurred. Another attempt, equally fruitless, was made by the Yunnan Government in the fourteenth century to discover the stone; all the members of the expedition, it is said, perished by malaria, or at the hands of hostile hill-tribes. From this time onwards, for several centuries, no further exploration in the jade country seems to have been undertaken by the Chinese. Small pieces of the stone occasionally found their way across the frontier, but the exact source of the supply continued unknown.

The year 1784 marks the final termination of a protracted series of hostilities between Burma and China, and from this time dates the opening of a regular trade between the two countries. Adventurous bands of Chinese before long discovered that the jade-producing districts lay on the right bank of the Uru River, and a small but regular supply of the stone was now conveyed every year to Yunnan.

Impracticable roads, a malarious climate, and an unsettled country prevented the expansion of the trade. Some twenty or thirty Chinese at the most went up into the jade country each season and a very small proportion of these ever returned. In the Chinese temple at Amarapura is a long list containing the names of upwards of 6,000 Chinese traders deceased in Burma since the beginning of the present century to which funeral rites are yearly paid. The large majority of these men are known to have lost their lives in the search for jade. The roll includes only the names of well-known and substantial traders. Could the number of smaller traders and adventurers who perished in the same enterprise be ascertained, the list would be swelled to many times its present size. Dr. William Griffith was the first European to actually visit the mines in 1837.”

Here is a short description of the different kinds of jade. What is commonly called jade does actually refer to two different minerals/gems, namely nephrite and jadeite. The different mineralogical and chemical compositions translate into differences in colour, hardness, translucence and texture. Nephrite, which is much more common than jadeite is made of soft calcium and magnesium silicate. Jadeite, the harder jade variety is composed of aluminium and sodium silicate

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