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

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

September 17, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

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.

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