Jade! I wrote what is below in 1998. We went back this time to the National Museum in Shanghai at least partly to look at the jade. This is a carving from a single piece about as big as your finger around 1,750 years old. The colours are natural.
But then it recurred. The mania. I don’t know what there is about China and jade, but it appears potently infectious. What happened last time is recounted below. Then this time Myrna found a shop over the road from our hotel in Shanghai. We found this nice bracelet with lots of good, well organised colour (if perhaps not grassy enough, see the green in the ring), lovely clear sound when struck. 3650 yuan. About $600. No. We tried 1000 and the bloke laughed at us. Next day during a long walk through the French Quarter she got into the Chinese commercial spirit and determined she would go back and make on offer. Went back and a sale had been announced at the shop. The gentleman running the shop got the bracelet out. 350. More or less what she had determined to offer. All done. All sold. Bang. Triumphant but thwarted from the thrill of the chase.
Fifteen years ago … JADE
I had always thought that jade looked like plastic and, although there is that remarkable carved jade carriage in the middle of the Queen Victoria Building, beneath notice. But that was before.
Jing Hong came at the end of an exhilarating but solid set of school experiences. People have asked me what we did at night. Well, lots of things — concerts, karaoke, eating, chatting, packing, night markets, walking — but I was always glad to get into bed, tired by the intensity of the trip and its myriad parts. Jing Hong was a break, a free day at the end of another long bus trip, and it had a backpackers’ cafe (the Mei Mei) which served European breakfasts. Breakfast for 23 plus, cooked on two gas rings is a tall order and so we poured over the menu the night before. Muesli, yoghurt, bacon and eggs, coffee, toast, jam, pancakes — a bit pathetic really to think we might have been slavering over such offerings. But slaver we did.
When it came to the point, the muesli was a big pile of rolled oats, the yoghurt some tofu-ish lumps, the bacon and eggs a test, but the banana pannos, yum. The coffee wasn’t great, but the Golden Dragon in Kunming had been charging the equivalent of $5 Australian for something darkish and wet of lower quality. When in China … that’s the clear message.
So we lay back into these delights and chatted, watching the endless stream of cyclists, some with utterly improbable loads, and eavesdropping on European escapees talking about their adventures in Xishuangbanna (the local area which draws tourists to, among other things, its stone gardens). The day was beatific. Myrna and I hired some bikes and rode aimlessly across the bridge over the Mekong and watched cheeky dogs who weren’t as obviously conscious of their possible fate as they might have been. We found a market where we bought a post-modernist bag (which demonstrated influences from camouflage jackets, Hollywood, the Chinese and various other unknown flags) for approximately nothing, some Nashi pears, a pineapple (the speciality of Xishuangbanna) and some biscuits.
What more could you want? You could want jade.
Near our hotel in Kunming had been a … what? A jewellery supermarket, I suppose. It had rubies from Burma, star sapphires, emeralds and amethyst from Sri Lanka, a certain amount of gold, a profusion of sparkling bits and pieces. But what it really had was jade. Rings, broaches, ornaments, necklaces, mounts for clocks, bracelets — a sea of green.
The neophyte approaches. It might be like looking at the aisles of prepared food in an American supermarket. You’re sure there must be something reasonably inoffensive that you can eat there somewhere, but how would you know? It’s what you like yourself, isn’t it? If you like milky jade or the lime green, who is to tell you the sea green is superior? Then there is something about the clink the jade piece makes when it is on a string and you hit it with something solid. Got your string or your piece of cotton on you? What clink? Do you want it to sound clunky or bell-like? And if you can find a bell-like clink… well I couldn’t. Flaws. What are we looking for here? No jade is clear, inscrutable substance that it is. With prices for apparently similar objects varying by 10,000 per cent it should be more articulate. We thought the safest bet was to buy the cheapest that we liked, and so emerged from the supermarket with four bracelets, not unlike green marble but more transparent, for 60 yuan ($12) and some rings. Over the road Myrna bought a pair of circlets for ear-rings bargained down to 80 yuan.
[Here’s the culprit with a jade axe head, about 5,000 years old, in the Shanghai Museum.]
It might be its very inscrutability that gets you in, but I quickly learned that it was nothing like plastic. It has as much character as any organic substance. So when we cycled past Jade Alley in Jing Hong, a street about a kilometre long which has little but jade shops in it, we cycled in. About 40 metres in. That was far enough.
My dear companion had become absorbed by jade and so we went through the stock, not just the stock on display but the stock from out the back, the good stuff, beautifully wrapped in envelopes of multi-leaved paper. The staff was a man in a Mao suit, a sure sign of elderliness, and a younger woman who might have been his wife. He wanted a sale; she wanted the right price. They had their piece of cotton, but I had only the glint in their eye to guide me about respective clinks. Nonetheless, the good stuff didn’t have to explain itself. It seemed visibly superior. Myrna bought a bracelet, a racehorse next to the Clydesdales she had bought in Kunming, finer, translucent, a brightish white with a streak of green viscera through one side. It went clunk satisfyingly and cost 180 yuan.
This objet was admired to the extent that Kathe rushed back to that shop before the plane left and bought a big one, a good one, milkier than Myrna’s with a variety of lovely shades of pale green. Eight hundred.
Later, as they say. A day later. Soft sleepers have four-berth cabins and, whatever you do, four into 23 leaves three. So Kathe, Jing and Ted shared their cabin with a Chinese gentleman who turned out to be a jade dealer. Jade! Let’s talk jade, let’s show how clever we have been with our purchases. He laughed a lot that jade dealer, as I suspect jade dealers must. When you’re dealing with something so mutable as taste in luxury items a capacity to laugh might be considered essential.
He laughed even louder when the pieces came out for valuation. What was good? The Clydesdales produced modest praise, the ear-rings with their grass green-ness and their translucency some applause, but the pieces de resistance were worth, well a good laugh in a train going to Chong Qing. A shame really to have to revert to the shamelessness of: I bought what I’m wearing. I paid a price I’m happy about. I know what I like. I like what I bought. It’s not a completely water tight syllogism, but it makes some sense. And if it doesn’t, you can always have a laugh.
Later again. Ten days later. We are in the Shanghai Museum’s Ancient Chinese Jade Gallery. The jade pieces, intricately carved, are white, black, almost clear, turquoise, grey, ochre, mother of pearl, orange and amber as well as green. The same piece — rings, ornaments, buttons, axes, vases, heads, serpents, dragons — is often multi-coloured. The jade is particulate, marbled, swirly and solid as well translucent. I am unable to administer any clink tests.
However, the prize piece, a wine vessel with three serpents from the early Qing Dynasty, about 30cms high, glamorous in a way which transcends glamour, seems to be fashioned from a rain cloud.