One of the rarest, most valuable gemstones in the world is Jadeite. Smooth to the touch with a lovely luster, it’s sturdy and capable of being carved into shapes and objects. Green is the best known color but it also comes in shades of lavender, yellow, white and black. Being a favored gemstone in China for 3000 years, a wealth of superstition and folklore has developed around it. The best jadeite, “Imperial Jade” has long been coveted by Chinese royalty. The fascinating history of Imperial Green Jade is nicely recounted in the non-fiction book, The Stone of Heaven by Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott.
Levy and Scott, who are both investigative journalists, combed through ancient texts in archives throughout Asia to uncover many wondrous tales of jade and the people who loved it including:
Emperor Qianlong – This powerful 18th century Chinese emperor engaged in a bloody and financially crippling war with the country of Mien-Tien in order to exact tribute from them, and the tribute he specifically wanted was Imperial Green Jade.
Griffith and Bayfield – At the instigation of the British East India Company, two men, Dr. William Griffith, “a ‘hardy and active’ scientist with a passion for exotic tea bushes” and Dr. George Bayfield a British Diplomat, endure a harrowing jungle trek in search of the legendary serpentine jadeite mines. These mines were rumored to be located somewhere in the Kachin Hills region of Burma, in the “Valley of Death” beneath the shadow of the “Great Golden Mountain.”
Empress Cixi – A young court concubine, Lady Yehenara, through luck, pluck and sheer ruthlessness becomes the dowager empress of China. She was also a rabid collector of Jade:
“Cixi’s satin robes were now Imperial yellow and her head-dress bore ‘a beautiful phoenix in the centre made of purest jade’ … Her shoulders were covered by a ‘transparent cape of 3500 pearls the size of canary bird eggs’, fringed by 40 jadeite drops and held at the throat by jadeite clasps, that a lady–in-waiting would later describe as ‘the most magnificent and costly thing I ever saw.’ Cixi wore six Imperial Green Jade Bangles carved into candy twists, triple-hoop jadeite ear-rings and a 108-bead court necklace made from Qianlong’s stone of heaven.”
These are just a few examples of the many colorful stories to be found in the book, which is compulsively readable. In the last section, the authors furtively slip into Burma (present day Myanmar) to investigate working conditions at the jade mines in the 1990s. What they find is horrific, with brutal working conditions and exploited people. Well researched and written, The Stone of Heaven is a fascinating exploration of a renowned gemstone and its role in history.
Check the WRL catalog for The Stone of Heaven: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade