Jade (pronounced "yu" in Chinese, and meaning
"the most beautiful stone") was considered a
royal gem in Ancient China from the earliest
dynasties up until present times, and is
inextricably woven into ancient and modern
Chinese culture. The use of jade (nephrite) in
China dates beck some 8,000 to 12,000 years,
and was an integral part of commercial, religious
and ceremonial life throughout this region.
Although the finest jade was reserved for the
Imperial courts, the use of jade in everyday life
crossed all socioeconomic boundaries.
Most of the "jade" used in China prior to the 17th
and 18th centuries was nephrite - also known as
"Ming Jade." Although most westerners don't
consider jade to be a "precious" gemstone, jade
was invaluable to the Chinese people of ancient
times. In ancient China, jade was held in much
higher esteem than other precious gemstones or
metals such as gold and silver. There is an
ancient Chinese proverb that says: "gold is
estimable, but jade is priceless."
So revered was jade that during the Han Dynasty
(206 BC—220 AD) Chinese nobility was buried in
a ceremonial suit made of pieces of jade, called
appropriately a "Jade burial suit" (yu yi, or "jade
suit"). According to the Book of Later Han, the
type of wire used was dependent on the station
of the person buried, with the emperors using
gold thread; princes, princesses, silver thread;
sons or daughters of those given silver thread,
copper thread; and lesser aristocrats, silk thread.
Ordinary citizens were forbidden to be buried in
Early Chinese jade carving motifs were influenced
by Buddhism and Taoism, with each
representation having a unique meaning. Popular
motifs were the deer symbolizing high official
ranking, a duck symbolizing 'love,' bamboo for
'lofty conduct,' the fan indicating 'benevolence,'
and lotus 'holiness.' The cabbage is a popular
motif even today, used to bring wealth or
prosperity into the home.