Jade: Burma’s Green Glory

In Chinese culture, jade takes a very prominent place for the Chinese attach supernatural powers to jade

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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 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.

A monk in Burma
A monk in Burma

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 aluminum and sodium silicate.

The softer variety, nephrite, has a hardness of 6 – 6.5 on the Mohs scale (from 1 to 10) and its surface is yielding relatively easy to cutter tools used to carve and incise jade. Therefore the nephrite is used to produce pieces with very sophisticated surface decoration, which is highly valued especially in China where jade is not just something to make money with and nice to look at but because of the mythical powers attributed to jade an important part of not only people’s lives but also afterlives. Extremely artfully carved Funerary objects of jade unearthed from royal tombs give an impressive demonstration of this. Against the background that nephrite is used to produce beautiful jade carvings one can justifiably say that it is the artistry of the carving that is determining the value and not the jade.

Lower qualities of nephrite (utility jade) are used to make dinnerware, trays, tea sets, figurines and interior decorative accessories.

As for the colour, well yes, what about the colour? The first thing that pops up before our mind’s eye when we hear the word ‘jade’ is a green piece of stone. Green? Why green? Because jade is always green, or is it? Jade occurs in six natural colours: green, lavender, red, yellow, white (the creamy white is in China known as ‘mutton fat’) and black (which is actually a very dark green). But concerning colours is also to differentiate between nephrite and jadeite.

The colour range for nephrite is not nearly as broad as for jadeite and is usually characterized by a certain dullness of colour and waxiness of texture.

The harder variety, jadeite, has a hardness of 6,5 – 8 (in rare case even up to 9 what makes it as hard as rubies) on the Mohs scale and its surface is invulnerable to cutter tool made of steel and extremely difficult to carve. That the carving of one of the larger jade objects for e.g. Chinese royalties took more than the lifetime of one artist (sometimes 2 and more) may give you an idea of that. Therefore jadeite is chiefly used to produce high-priced jewellery. And it is this high-grade quality of jade Burma is famous for.

Like nephrite, jadeite appears in six basic colours but with many variations. Also, jadeite comes in much more vivid green colours, finer texture and a higher degree of translucency than nephrite jade. The natural colours are green, lavender, red, yellow, white and black.

Green, the most important and traditional colour, varies from an intense emerald green through apple-green to gray-green and finally black-green. So why do we – especially ‘westerners’ – think Jade is always green? This is because green jade is the most traditional, rare and expensive colour and used to make jewellery. And that is where we ‘Westerners’ know it from, from jade jewellery, which, subsequently, is green. This makes us (well, many of us) jumping to the wrong conclusion that jade is always green.

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In China, green jade symbolizes good fortune. The finest quality of green jade is traditionally referred to as ‘Imperial jade’ because it was the kind of jade preferred by Chinese empresses and emperors. However, for the sake of correctness one should not use this term because the correct term is ’emerald jade’. Why? Because the source of the green colour is the colouring agent chromium, which is the same agent that makes emeralds green.

In Burma jade is mined in Kachin State in the northernmost part of the country. The centre of jade mining is Hpakant also spelled Phakant. It is located smack in the centre of one of our planet’s most malaria infested and inhospitable places located astride the Uyu River 220 miles/350 kilometres north of Mandalay.

Phakant is accessible only from September/October to May/June. During the monsoon months in-between it is virtually cut off the rest of the country. Other towns with significant jade depots in the region areTawmao, Hweka and Mamon. In the neighbouring region Hkampti (also spelled Khamti ) in Sagaing Division it is Nasibon and Natmaw. According to statistics ‘Jade Land’ in Burma’s Kachin state is the source of more than 70 percent of global top-grade jadeite supply.

In present-time Burma the total number of active mining companies is said to be about 100. With the exception of the introduction of electricity, motorised tools and vehicles, backhoes and dynamite into the mining process virtually nothing has changed in more than 100 years of jade mining in Burma. The methods employed are now as ever very primitive, the cconditions in the mines are abysmal and payments for workers and safety standards are very low. About 70 percent of Burmese jade mine workers are drug addicts (opium and heroin) and HIV infected. Maybe you call that to your mind and say a prayer for those who have lost their lives mining it prior to buying an expensive piece of jade be it raw or processed. By the way, this also goes for rubies, diamonds, and so forth.

Extraction of jade in the Hpakant area is mainly done by way of what is called ‘boulder mining’. This is the process of extracting rocks that are believed to contain jade from the ground after removing the layer of alluvial material called ‘overburden’ that is covering them. In order to find jade-containing boulders miner have to go deeper and deeper for the surface-near layers are already sifted many times. The jade boulders here a rounded, have a thick skin (mountain jade appears as irregular chunks with a thin skin) and the jade is called ‘river jade’.

After those rocks that do most likely contain jade are separated from the ordinary rocks the latter are as waste disposed in the river and on river banks. With, by the by, often disastrous consequences for the natural environment and the people living in these areas.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The very tricky part, which requires lots of experience and an equally large amount of luck, is to identify the jade. Finding boulders containing jade is so difficult because jade is usually surrounded by a more or less thick layer of rock what makes the jade boulder look like any other ordinary rock. Sure, it would be easy to just drill or cut into the rock to see what is hidden inside but using this method could depending on the size of the rock (most weigh 1 kg or less and are relatively small) in the worst case reduce a very valuable stone to almost rubble if you hit the wrong i.e. most valuable part. That is why subtler methods are required. Miners and merchants alike are therefore looking, among others, for clues such as so-called ‘show points’, places at which colour is visible through a thinner layer of skin. Another method is proving the weight because jade-containing rocks are heavier than normal ones due to the higher density. Yet another method is to look for spots with fibrous texture (without glitter and/or sand). This texture is – referring to the ‘delicious’ part of the stone – called by the locals ‘yumm’. Additionally, they are looking for surface colouration, check how the stone surface feels when touched under water (in water jade feels slightly ‘gluey’ or ‘sticky’) and listen to the sound produced by tapping with a metal tool against the stone. In case the stone contains jade the tapping produces a ‘warmer’ sound. It is safe to say that irrespective of expertise being successful in ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ in the jade business is to at least 50 percent just gambling. What seems to be very promising can turn out to be an empty nut and vice versa. Many buyers (mostly traders) have given themselves the bullet for losing everything because they have backed the wrong horse; it’s a gamble.

Having identified the jade follows the classification and the quality criteria are colour, translucency and texture. Burmese merchants recognise the following varieties.

1. Mya Yay or Yay Kyauk, translucent and a uniform grass-green in colour. This is the most precious variety.

2. Shwelu, light-green jadeite with bright-green spots and streaks.

3. Lat Yay, clouded jadeite, is used in making bracelets, buttons, hatpins, ornaments, drinking cups, etc.

4. Hmaw Sit Sit, a dark-green variety, is rather soft and brittle, and used in the manufacture of cheaper jewellery.

5. Konpi, the red or brownish variety, is only found in mountain boulders, embedded in red (ferrous) earth. This variety is not found at Tawmaw.

6. Kyauk-atha, white translucent jadeite, is used for bracelets, stems of pipes, plates, spoons, flower-pots, cups, saucers, etc.

7. Pan-tha, brilliant white in colour, and translucent, but opaque to a certain extent. This opacity is considered to be a defect and considerably reduces the price of the find. Like marble, it is used purely for decorative purposes, such as inlaying tables, chairs, boxes, furniture, etc.

8. Kyauk Amè, the black (dark-green) variety. It is used for making buttons, bars for brooches, etc.

The last step is the processing i.e. cutting and carving of jade. In Burma, most of the cutting and carving of jade is done in the country’s largest stone cutting centre, Mandalay. The main reasons for that are Mandalay’s very high percentage of Chinese inhabitants (around 80 percent), the central location and the closeness to both China and the mining areas.

Source by Markus Burman

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