Musical chimes, xylophones and gongs made of the melodically resonant jade have been used the world over for pleasant listening and for ritual. In China, Africa and the Hopi nation, jade instruments have been used to produce a ‘heavenly’ tone for ritual use. To Chinese poets, the melodious sound produced by jade resembles the voice of a loved one, and jade has been termed the concentrated essence of love.
There are actually two minerals that have been used interchangeably as jade, nephrite and jadeite. To the ancient stone workers, it was more the smooth feel and the clear tinkling sound the stone produced when thin pieces were struck together that was of importance, along with its hardness and many variations of translucent colors.
Jade has been used wherever found by early humans, but only in New Zealand and Central America has it risen to as high an art form as it did in China. At the time of the conquest of Mexico by Cortez, jade was so highly esteemed by the Aztecs that it was worth many times its weight in gold.
The hardness of jade is what gave it such importance to the Maori peoples of New Zealand. Jade was used for knives and blades, and was so cherished it was passed down through the generations. Jade was also used to form heirloom ornaments called ‘hei-tiki’. When a new hei-tiki was required, a tohunga, (or wizard,) was engaged to locate raw jade with which to work. The tohunga would lead the hunt to an area where jade could be found and go into a trance to contact the spirits of the ancestors for help. Inevitably jade would always be found in the spot so indicated, it seems the spirits are never wrong.
The jade so found was named after the man who’s spirit helped the tohunga locate it, and the final form of the hei-tiki was largely determined by the natural shape of the stone, which would be slowly worked to reveal the shape of the spirit inside. These ancestral spirit objects were carefully guarded and especially revered. They were thought to help and guide the family.
When the family was dying out, the last male member of the family would have the hei-tiki buried with him to guard it from strangers. The head of families would also have the hei-tiki buried with him when he died. When the coast was clear, the nearest male relative would go to the burial site and retrieve the hei-tiki, so that it could guide the family once more.
This succession of burials and retrievals of the hei-tiki certainly added to their mystique. Many cultures fear their dead, the Maori seemed to find them a great source of aid. It is indeed a strongly encouraging thought that the wisdom of the ancestors would be passed on to these jade images as they lay in the grave, waiting to rejoin their families once more.
The Maori were far from the only culture to see the dead as a source of aid and wisdom, and to bury their jade with them. The ancient Egyptians, Central Americans and the Chinese also buried jade with their dead, usually in the mouth. Green stones were most often used, they were meant to represent the heart. It is interesting to note, in the ancient method of body energy description, known as the chakra system, green is the color used to represent the heart chakra.
Green is hardly the only color of jade, yet it is often the color referred to when speaking of it. Jade green is actually fairly rare in the world of jade, but it was THE color to use for the dead. During the Han dynasty in China, jade pigs were often placed in the hands of the dead, and cicada, symbols of cyclical resurrection, were used as tongue amulets to protect the body from decomposition. A three legged wine vessel made of jade, called a Jue, was used by rulers of the Shang dynasty to make wine-offerings to the ancestor spirits, and chimera, (winged and horned feline monsters,) of jade were set in tombs to protect the deceased from evil spirits and desecration.
A medicinal cult arose around jade in ancient China, it involved the mixing of powdered jade with water as a panacea to strengthen the body and to prolong life. If ingested just prior to death, this jade mixture was supposed to delay decomposition.
Confucius describes the Chinese love of jade by comparing its qualities to the virtues of a gentleman, “esteemed by all under the sun”. The ancient Han scholar, Xu Shen, lists the five virtues of jade in his great dictionary as, ‘charity, rectitude, wisdom, courage and equity’.
Jade use and reverence in China dates back to Neolithic times, (one of the earliest forms of the ideograph for ‘king’ appears to be the symbol for a string of jade beads), and to list all instances and occurrences would be a formidable task. Suffice to say that one of the gates in the Great Wall of China is named the Jade Gate. Caravans of jade bearing camels trekked two thousand miles, over as many years, bringing jade to the artisans of China to work into huge sculptures, as well as tiny, delicate ornaments. The art of jade carving is so specialized that it is very rare to find an artist who can create both large and small carvings.
As a sign of nobility and wealth, as a protector of generations and the dead, and as musically pleasing instruments, jade has been and always will be ‘Yu’, the gem supreme, the “Jewel of Heaven”, stone of the heart.