Jade Life: An Englishman’s Love Affair with China’s National Treasure is my favourite kind of China book: a passionate, informed, well-written account of an interesting niche subject. With Jade Life we not only get a depth of knowledge about the subject – and an insider’s look at an unfamiliar world, in this case the jade industry and in particular jade carving – but we see China through a particular lens.
China is such a massive country and subject, that it’s an overwhelming task trying to describe it and the changes experienced in the post-Mao period. This challenge has several obvious solutions. Some authors focus on the local level: Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria looks at his wife’s hometown; Rob Schmitz uses a Shanghai road in Street of Eternal Happiness. Another approach is to examine a transect of the country by making a long journey; good examples are Rob Gifford’s China Road, a trip along highway Route 312 all the way from Shanghai to Xinjiang, and Graham Earnshaw’s The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet.
For niche subjects, there are outsider accounts like Dan Washburn’s The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream. And then there are accounts when the author has money and sweat invested – never is the true nature of things made clearer than when your own money is on the line. Here I’m thinking of books like Mark Kitto’s China Cuckoo, which describes his adventures in publishing and tourism. Another is A Decent Bottle of Wine in China by Chris Ruffle, who had the audacity to establish a vineyard and build a castle in Shandong. In Jade Life, author Andrew Shaw has skin in the game too; jade is very expensive and buying it is fraught with dangers.
Those who have bought jade sometimes find the stone they have paid a small fortune for is not quite as good inside once cut open. I know of one established carver with a large workshop who paid more than US$1,000,000 for a hunk of nephrite only to find when he sawed it open that he had bought stone of far inferior value. He had to let half his workforce go and move to smaller premises as a result.
Shaw says jade is “the heart and soul of China. It is in the DNA of every citizen.” He demonstrates the long affection Chinese have held for jade by detailing how the stone is incorporated into the language. There are countless sayings referencing jade.
“As Pure as Jade and clean as Ice” means pure and noble. The phrase “Jade lady” refers to a woman of beauty. Beautiful women are also described as smooth as jade and as soft as flowers. A woman with a fair complexion and a slim figure is described as having jade bones and ice white skin. … Someone who can’t tell the difference between good and bad is referred to as someone who can’t tell jade from stone. Jade Stalk is used for the male sexual organ. Jade Gate is used for the female equivalent.
Shaw’s own love affair with the stone began with the purchase of a small jade Buddha in Thailand, where he was on a four-month assignment for the BBC. When he went looking for books to read up on the modern jade industry, he was frustrated; all he could find were history-heavy works: “None of them seemed to know about the stone of today. I decided that the only way I was going to do this was as to travel to the spiritual home of jade, China, and learn how to carve it myself.”
Shaw resigned from his job and moved to Suzhou, China in 2008. Like many a Western predecessor, he arrived in the country with an idealized hope of his new exotic life:
I had a vision of sitting at the feet of a master beside a gently tinkling fountain in his walled garden while we discussed the finer points of carving. He would guide me through the intricacies of the ancient craft and praise me for my skill while we sipped green tea from porcelain cups.
Getting off the train in Suzhou, a city immortalized in the saying, “Above there is heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou,” he “was immediately overwhelmed by noise and chaos.” The city of gardens and canals might have “been some Chinese idyll in a previous life” but no longer. It was “polluted, raucous and chaotic.”
At least the jade carving business was on an old-fashioned human scale. It is a cottage industry comprised of family-run enterprises with just a few workers, sometimes just a single craftsman in a workshop.
In Suzhou, Shaw found these businesses – about 1,500 workshops – clustered in a small but nationally-important jade-carving district: “This maze of tiny, grubby alleys tucked away in the south-eastern part of the old city is in an area only eight hundred meters long and about one hundred meters at its widest.”
Shaw started studying Mandarin and set about finding a jade carving teacher. This basically meant knocking on doors. After many false starts – as Shaw notes Chinese people are often reluctant to give a direct “no” to a request – he found a willing teacher called Wu Fan. Shaw spent two years studying with Wu, gaining a solid foundation of jade carving skills which would set him on a successful path to becoming an award-winning jade carver. In a chapter dedicated to his mentor, the author expresses enormous gratitude to “a humble craftsman who epitomizes all that is good about China.”
Jade Life takes us through the jade carving process from beginning to end, which Shaw divides into eight stages: obtaining the stone, cutting the stone, design, carving, sanding and polishing, display, and sales (haggling).
As Shaw explains early on, jade is more than a single kind of stone; it is actually two different stones; there’s nephrite, used in China for thousands of years, and then there is jadeite, “which was only introduced to China from Burma in the late eighteenth century.” Although similar, jadeite is slightly brighter and harder than nephrite.
Shaw makes an interesting point about the all-important stage of bargaining for jade stone:
I usually deal with women rather than men. This is because men seem to think they have to get a higher price from a foreigner than from a Chinese person and they want other stall-holders to see how easily they can trick the lao wai – to the extent that they will refuse to sell to me at a realistic price. Women, on the other hand, seem far more pragmatic and willing to do business.
My favorite chapters of Jade Life are the intimate profiles of people involved in the jade industry, such as master carver Qu Lijun. Master Qu’s story is an encapsulation of bicycle-to-Mercedes success in late twentieth-century China. He was responsible for the emergence of Suzhou’s jade carving district. Qu had been earning a pittance in an inefficient government jade factory, where the hard work of eighty carvers “supported sixty managers, a hundred and fifty other workers such as cleaners, security guards, cooks, salesmen, laundry workers and more than fifty retired craftsmen who still took a wage.” Qu walked away in 1991 and set up his own private workshop. He flourished so well that “Within three years, all eighty carvers who worked at the factory had left and set up on their own.” A whole district of jade carvers grew up around Qu’s simple workshop.“I mistakenly believed craftsmen had been working there for hundreds of years. It never occurred to me that one young man had begun it by stepping away from the state-owned enterprise world and embracing the free market.”
A common thread running through the chapter profiles of people in the jade trade is – despite their success – not wanting their children to follow in their footsteps. Jade is simply too much hard work. A lifetime of carving also takes its toll on one’s health; the jade dust particles damage the lungs, the noise in workshops impairs hearing, and the repetitive strains of hours spent hunched over a spindle often lead to arthritis.
In a chapter on “Symbolism” Shaw says that design seems to be the main factor for a Western customer, whereas Chinese people are more concerned with the quality of the stone and also the symbolism of the design: that is, the piece should have an auspicious meaning, typically a positive association to wealth, longevity, luck, and so on. He goes through various lucky symbols, including some rather – for Westerners – surprising ones.
Because the word for “bat” is a homonym for “blessing”, it has been associated with good luck for thousands of years. It is extremely important in jade carving. One lovely carving is a piece of bamboo with a bat clinging to it. The Chinese word for bamboo is zhu, and zhu can also mean, with another character, an expression of good wishes. So zhu means Bamboo and fu means Bat. So if you give this carving to a person as a gift it means you wish them good luck.
Shaw dedicates a chapter to advice on buying jade. In summary, it’s pretty much buyer beware, especially for Johnny Laowai: “Westerners have to be very, very, very careful. Foreigners are generally seen as easy marks who don’t know the value of what they are buying, don’t haggle and pay way too much.”
Jade Life ends with a look at the future. It’s a rosy one in terms of demand: “Very few things are certain in this world, but it is clear that Chinese people will always buy jade.” However, the supply side is less certain – while there’s plenty of lower-quality stone, the highest-quality jade is becoming scarce. “Each year less and less of the brilliant kingfisher green jadeite from the Kachin Hills in Myanmar and the mutton-fat-white Jade from Hetian in northwest China is found.”
Jade Life is a great read – a big-hearted, highly accessible, informative, and likeable account. It will appeal to any reader interested in China regardless of one’s interest in jade. The author has a friendly, down-to-earth manner, and there’s no self-aggrandizement. The focus on a niche subject and the intimate look at the industry has a humanizing effect in the way it presents China and its people. The book is also a tremendous example of someone in middle age reinventing himself and living an adventure. Andrew Shaw has, in a decade, learnt Mandarin, become a master artist and a leading Western authority on a subject, forged lasting friendships, married a local woman, and made a new life in a foreign country.
To learn more about Shaw and to see some of his artworks, visit his website.