- Mon, 01/31/2011 - 11:00
By David Eimer
Hotan9:00PM GMT 29 Jan 2011
Over the last 5,000 years of Chinese history, it has come to mean all things to both men and women. Prized more highly than gold, a lump of polished jade is said to ward off evil spirits, symbolise female purity - and provides the perfect gift to flatter an imperial ruler or bribe a corrupt official.
Now, though, the crystalline gemstone - used in everything from sculpture and jewellery through to axe-heads and opium pipes - has become a victim of the very power and wealth it embodies. Thanks to China's rapid economic growth, demand for the "imperial gem" is soaring, pushing prices up tenfold in the last decade - and exhausting what little supplies are still available in the jade-panning valleys of China's remote Far West.
"Ten years ago, a small pendant made of mutton fat jade would have cost around 2,000 Yuan (£190). Now, it's at least 20,000 Yuan," said jade salesman Zhang Xian Kuo, referring to the cream-coloured, marbled stone found near his town of Hotan in Xinjiang Province, which is more highly-prized than the more common green variety.
"It's not just the limited amount of high-quality jade that has caused the price to increase. It's the fact that people see it as an investment, so when they own a piece they don't want to sell it, which means very little good second-hand jade comes on the market."
A former Silk Road trading hub that sits on the edge of the vast Taklamakan Desert, the oasis town of Hotan has been famous for its jade for thousands of years.
Today, the demand is such that it is become the site of a Klondyke-style "jade rush", the biggest in its history. From dawn until dusk, the banks of the Jade Dragon Kashgar River on Hotan's eastern outskirts are lined with men and women, young and old, scouring the river for the jade stones that are washed down from deposits in the mostly inaccessible 7,000 metre-high Kunlun Mountains that straddle the Xinjiang-Tibet border.
In this isolated rural region, where the average annual income is just 3.500 Yuan (£326), jade-hunting is widely seen as a way out of poverty.
"You can be lucky and make your fortune in a day, or you can spend 10 years by the river without finding anything," said Mohammed Ali, who has been selling jade for seven years. Standing in front of a metal tray of jade stones submerged in water at Hotan's bustling jade market, he is one of the many who have abandoned working on the farms that surround the city to try and cash in on the demand for jade.
Like most of the people working at the market, Mr Ali is a Uighur, the Muslim ethnic minority who are native to Xinjiang and who comprise over 90 per cent of Hotan's population. His customers, though, are Han Chinese, who make up the vast majority of China's 1.3 billion people. They come from all over China, from as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. "They know Hotan jade is the best," he said.
While the jade stones he sells are valuable in themselves, it is when they are fashioned into jewellery or statues that the real money is made. As well as finely-crafted sculptures and gifts, jade has been used in Chinese calligraphy brushes, chess and mahjong sets, and in the mouthpieces of opium pipes - the belief being that jade also had health-giving properties.
Other qualities ascribed to the stone are that it symbolises virginity among women, and - according to the philosopher Confucius - outstanding honesty and moral courage in men.
Jade shop owner Guo Fengliang had travelled to Hotan from Hebei Province in northern China, some 2,000 miles away, in search of raw material. Clutching a satchel full of bundles of cash, he showed off a fist-sized lump of jade he had just bought for 20,000 Yuan (£1,900). "We'll carve it up into bracelets," he said. "I should make 100,000 Yuan (£9,320) from this piece of jade, so business is good."
Of all jade, none is more prized than the unique mutton fat variety found in Hotan. Once reserved only for emperors, rising incomes have recently put it in reach of the middle classes in China's booming eastern cities. But the hunger for Hotan jade has caused irreparable damage to the river it is found in, with potentially devastating effects for the trade's future.
Although the local government has banned the use of bulldozers and other machinery, the dredging and diverting of the Kashgar River by prospecters has reduced the 100 metre-wide waterway to a trickle. It is a far cry from the time 10 years ago, when locals recall it torrenting down from the mountains, bringing with it huge jade stones.
As a result, it is now increasingly hard to find mutton fat jade. "I think there won't be any Hotan jade left in five to 10 years," said Chen Jianxin, a jade shop owner in Hotan. "The best jade comes from a 13-14 kilometre stretch of the river, and people have been exploring there for 8,000 years. It's really intensified since 2003, so there's very little high-quality jade left."
The shortage has sprawned a trade in counterfeit mutton fat jade, with stones being chemically treated in an effort to whiten them.
However, thanks to the laws of supply and demand that China's new market economy has embraced with such fervour, Hotan's centuries as a jade haven may soon come to an end. For as long as prices for the finest stones kept rising, predicted Mr Chen, the jade rush was likely continue until the very last piece was found.
"I don't think we've reached a peak yet," he said. "With the economy doing so well, more and more people are buying jade. Everybody wants one perfect piece of jade for themselves."