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Jade Trade Chips Away at a Bit of China's Soul

Dear FOJ Members,

Today the Los Angeles Times newspaper has a half-page article about Hotan and its jade trade. The main thrust to the narrative is that after 2,000 or more years Hotan is apparently running out of jade. So much mining has been and is occurring that the deposit may not survive. I'm reasonably sure that the new dam on the formerly named "Black Jade River" has had an impact too. Anyway, I think you will find the article is of interest.

Fred Ward
Friends of Jade


Hotan's famous stone, part of the nation's very psyche, is about to be mined into oblivion.


By Mark Magnier

Times Staff Writer

September 17, 2006

HOTAN, China — Prospectors line the banks of the Yulong Kashgar River here, overturning boulders, boring into banks and panning pebbles in a scene out of the California Gold Rush.

The object of their desire on this arid outpost in far western China is not gold, however, but jade, which holds a near-mystical grip on one of the world's oldest civilizations.

"Gold is valuable," says a Chinese proverb. "Jade is invaluable."

And these treasure hunters aren't looking for just any jade. Over the centuries, Hotan has gained a reputation for producing some of the highest-quality stones in China.

But as growing numbers of searchers comb this washed-out riverbed and surrounding mountains, some experts worry that China is losing a piece of its soul. The priceless treasure, they fret, is rapidly falling prey to the greed, corruption and environmental degradation that tears at so many corners of Chinese life.

The problem isn't so much the small-time freelancers such as Umerjan, 33, who said he had worked his homemade pick and sieve here every day for the last two years without a major find.

"I really want to hit that lucky strike," said Umerjan, who gave only his first name. "So far it's nothing but small pieces."

It's more the heavy-equipment users who carve scars in the earth, upsetting nature's balance and threatening to deplete a resource that has brought joy to generations. Authorities implemented new rules this year, revoking all outstanding licenses and making commercial excavation along the river illegal.

But bulldozers and other excavators continue to work early in the morning or late in the evening, residents say, without much interference from local officials. Fresh tracks of heavy equipment are visible in the wet sand.

"Hotan jade isn't like coal or oil — it's a very special resource that's been with us for thousands of years," said Wang Shiqi, a geology professor and jade specialist at Peking University. "If we continue unlimited exploitation, we're in danger of irreparably damaging Chinese culture."

According to state-run media, more than 80% of Hotan's jade has been exploited, with some reports suggesting it may be gone in three to five years. As many as 20,000 people and 2,000 pieces of heavy equipment are said to be working the area, leaving gashes in the ground as deep as 30 feet.

The hold these rocks have on the Chinese psyche — in their various shades of red, green, white, gray, topaz and black — is deep and dates to prehistoric times. Hotan jade is famous for its size and its white sheen; the latter is dubbed "sheep fat," a reflection of the mutton-obsessed culture in this part of the country.

One Hotan piece, a sort of Hope diamond of the jade world, weighs in at 11,795 pounds and is carved to depict an ancient emperor leading flood-control efforts. It resides in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Archeologists have found jade items dating back 5,000 years, and written reference to Hotan's treasures go back at least 2,000. Some sources say the Jade Road has a far longer history than its more famous cousin, the Silk Road, with Hotan a crossroads for traders linking Mediterranean buyers with eastern Chinese sellers.

Generations of Chinese emperors received Hotan treasures as tributes, bolstering its reputation as one of the embodiments of Chinese culture and civilization, along with calligraphy, painting, porcelain making and China's other great arts.

For many people, however, the mineral goes beyond mere collectible or art object, taking on near-human qualities. Confucius identified 11 jade virtues as a model for human behavior, and its famed purity is a metaphor for female virginity. "Remain as pure as jade," generations of Chinese mothers have cautioned their daughters.

As newfound wealth has transformed Chinese society in recent decades, imperial collectors have been supplanted by a new group of elite. At a high-end shop in Kashgar, jade dealer Ye Sanfei said demand is often driven by government officials, especially those from Beijing, along with a growing number of nouveau riche entrepreneurs.

In an economy well lubricated by bribery, officials often prefer to receive presents instead of cash, experts say, and what better way to shower influence on gatekeepers than with a timeless gift of jade?

Hotan jade, which can sell for up to $120 a gram, accounts for 10% of the $1.2-billion annual jade trade, according to the China Precious Stone Assn., a trade group.

The wares lining Ye's shop range from small pendants selling for well under $100 to a carved boulder priced at $35,000. As with most things in China, however, bargaining is expected.

The high prices are the stuff of dreams for the poorly dressed diggers working along the Yulong Kashgar, or Jade Dragon, River. Many console themselves with stories of friends of friends who found pieces the size of fists, basketballs, watermelons.

"It's more about luck than skill," said Musajan, 47, an ethnic Uighur who uses one name, as he unwrapped a plastic bag containing several pieces of white, green and brown jade worth a few cents each.

The methods of these dreamers vary widely. One family of four armed with shovels and picks dug horizontally into the riverbank, supervised by a fifth family member kibitzing from beneath a parasol. Farther along, several solo figures dug pits with their bare hands, with little apparent urgency.

Farther upstream, another team repaired a diesel engine it was using to pump a gush of river water at the ground in hopes of unearthing buried treasure.

"We small people trying our luck don't really hurt the land," said Han Ping, 63, partially submerged in a hole dug by hand. "But the big machines, which are often gone by the time I arrive in the morning, hurt the environment and even flood the village."

Behind the increasingly frenetic search are the skyrocketing prices of the last decade, with reports of twentyfold leaps within a few years. A carved white jade cup from the 18th century, scheduled for auction by Christie's in Hong Kong in November, is expected to fetch $1.3 million to $1.9 million.

Dealers complain that the growing demand has also inspired a trade in more sophisticated counterfeits. But then, jade's history and high value have meant a centuries-long association with theft, deceit, avarice, questionable claims and ne'er-do-wells.

Imperial tomb robbers have long targeted jade talismans, believed by some dynasties to ward off decomposition and ease passage to the afterlife. At times in China's history, the mineral has played a prominent role in witchcraft and traditional medicine.

"Jade is a cure for whatever medical problem befalls you," reads a sign in the Zhongjian Hotan Jade shop in Kashgar, a claim that customer Liu Xiaohu, 34, a supermarket owner, finds perfectly reasonable.

"I believe it will cure everything," he said. "I've heard when jade touches your skin, it sucks out the poisons."

Jade even has a role in protecting copyrights. "Anyone who duplicates this article without permission will be punished by the Jade God," according to an article on the Internet.

Along the banks of the Yulong Kashgar, the Jade God didn't seem to be blessing many treasure seekers on a recent afternoon. But some took it in stride.

"Sure, I'd like to find a big strike," the barefoot Han said as she showed a few of the small stones she had unearthed in recent days. "But it's also just a nice way to enjoy the scenery. I just keep trying my luck."

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