The Chinese have had a love affair with Jade – and other beautiful stones – for thousands of years. The appeal of Jade to the ancient Chinese was due to its toughness, luster, multiplicity of colors and the transformation it underwent when heated. The burning of Jades in pre-burial cremation ceremonies was essential for members of the ruling class in many areas and periods of ancient China. Confucius compared the qualities of Jade to those of a cultured man. The appreciation of archaic Chinese Jades involves more than just the enjoyment of their solemn aloofness and brilliant luster. One must look beyond their physical properties – what can be seen and touched – to the metaphysical spirit that they embody. This spirit is born of the Chinese veneration of heaven and ancestors. It grows moreover from a culture that seeks to live in harmony with nature.
With the exception of a few simple objects like round and flat discs with central holes (called Bi or pi, symbolizing Heaven, and deriving from early sun-worship) and drilled beads for stringing, the earliest Jades are prohibitively rare.
Starting about 2,000 BC the population in China was expanding, and with it the demand for and ability to find and transport the raw stone (usually from far away places) to craft centers where fine Jade objects were created for the arising nobility. Being a large and diverse land, the Chinese found many raw materials suitable for object creation, all of which were called Yu.
“Stone of heaven” is a term used by the Chinese to describe what they view as the most precious of gems – Jade. To understand the importance of Jade to the Chinese is to gain insight into their culture and history. Jade is woven into the very fabric of Chinese ethos and it has been from the earliest Neolithic cultures that thrived in what became known as China.
It is only recent, owing to controlled archaeological digs of the last few decades and the use of modern scientific dating techniques, that it has become clear that Jade work in China extends back over a long period prior to the Shang era. In fact, Chinese archaic Jades of the Bronze Age and later are the product of a long development process, extending so far back through the Neolithic period (to about 5500 B.C.) that the period of Jade working before the Shang era now appears to be longer than what used to be considered the classic period of archaic Jades, i.e. the Shang to Western Han.