web analytics

The Stone of Heaven Review The Sunday Times

THE STONE OF HEAVEN: The Secret History of Imperial Green Jade
by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark Weidenfeld £20 pp429

More precious than diamonds, jade was fought over by emperors. It is still the cause of incalculable misery – One does not possess a piece of jade: one is possessed by it. When I was 18, my mother bought me a small Tang-dynasty figurine of a mythical beast, carved in mutton-fat jade. Its opalescent translucence, waxy touch and history captivated me. Since then, I have occasionally come to own other pieces of antiquarian jade, a frisson of excitement attending each acquisition. However, only two of these are made of the most valuable of jades – imperial green.

Jade, once referred to in the West as serpentine, has been highly prized in China since at least the Neolithic period. A ritual pi disc, symbolic of heaven, was found in the royal Shang tombs dating to the first half of the second millennium BC. Since then, jade has been carved into everything from belt buckles to opium pipes, ritual vessels and jewellery. Finials made of different coloured jades denoted a mandarin’s rank; concubines were often named after certain jades that were considered erotic or life-bearing substances: the penis is referred to metaphorically as the jade stalk, the vagina as the jade garden: Known as chen yu, (the latter character is also that for treasure or gem); true jade is a form of calcium/magnesium silicate coloured by chemical impurities such as iron or copper, and not to be confused with the much softer green fluorite mostly carved today for the tourist and art markets.

Considered the stone of heaven and embodying the same colour as the iridescent emerald plumage of a kingfisher’s neck (hence its specific name of fei cui), imperial green jade was to come into its own in the reign of the Q’ing emperor, Qianlong, who was obsessed by it. Driven by his fixation, he sent expeditions to
their deaths in the search for the mine (in modern-day Burma) from which it was hewn, signed impolitic treaties to acquire it and wrote hundreds of poems to it, often on the substance itself. He even went as far as obtaining priceless ancient pieces and having them recut to suit his own designs. The largest piece of jade in existence, an enormous bowl, was one such: he had it recarved and engraved with figures and his own poetry, often mocked (out of his earshot) as doggerel. Shaped into eggs, it was used by courtesans to increase sexual arousal and was eaten in powder form as fan yu, the elixir of immortality.

As European contact with China burgeoned in the 18th century, imperial green jade became known in the West, but no pieces were ever seen, fuelling an intense curiosity about this almost mythical gem. It was not until 1837 that explorers discovered the region in northern Burma whence it came: even then, they did not find the working mine but a worked-out site.

With the passage of time, and the Q’ing dynasty’s decline into decadence and collapse, eunuchs in Peking’s Forbidden City started to smuggle out small artefacts; at the same time, warlords robbed imperial graves in which corpses were known to have been buried with armoured shrouds made of panels of fei cui attached with gold wire. Once these appeared on the market, the secret was out and the hunger for jade throughout the world accelerated.

The greatest act of theft, however, was conducted by the British and French when they attacked Peking in September, 1860, pillaging and ransacking the Forbidden City and its treasure houses. Among the looters was Captain Charles Gordon, later “Chinese” Gordon and Gordon of Khartoum, who lifted a white jade carving for his mother and an imperial green jade horse for himself.

Thereafter, the story of fei cui becomes convoluted. As with any precious substance, once its beauty is assured, its scarcity proven and its value established, it is subject to man’s greed and chicanery. Wars have been fought over and financed by it, political ideologues and ambitions have been sustained by it. Gangsters (such as Du Yuesheng, who bankrolled Chiang Kai-shek and Kuomintang nationalist forces in China with his vast income from opium and jade dealing) and jewellers have been made fabulously wealthy. Rich men have spent fortunes to own it: in 1997, Christie’s in Hong Kong sold a necklace of fei cui for just under £6m. Poor men have risked their lives to make a meagre living from it.

And they still do, in one of the greatest acts of barbarism and inhumanity on earth today. In remotest northern Burma, at a place called Hpakant where the fei cui mine is still operated, tens of thousands of coolies are press-ganged into working themselves to death by the oppressive Burmese military rulers, for whom the mine is a huge source of foreign currency. To keep the workforce going, the coolies are systematically addicted to heroin in government run divans, where hypodermic needles are in such short supply that one might be shared by hundreds of users. Their sexual needs are addressed in government-run brothels. Inevitably, Aids is epidemic and kills at an alarming rate: no matter, of course, for replacements are then recruited. Humans here are nowhere near as valuable as the commodity they dig.

Incredibly, the authors were given access not only to Burma, but also, with the generals’ blessing, to Hpakant. Their horrendously vivid description of the mine and, all the more remarkably, photographs of it, put this “valley of death” in the same category as the killing fields of Cambodia and the mass graves of Serbia.

This book, part detective story played out in musty Indian archives, part investigative journalism, travelogue and chronicle, is riveting. The tale moves from the imperial courts of China to those of New York society hostesses, from Shanghai’s 1930s gangster-land to the auction houses of London, from the opulent lifestyle of the trader Sir Victor Sassoon to the poverty of 105-year-old Tutu, the last survivor of the Burmese monarchy, who lives on a rubbish tip in Ratnagiri. To read it is to be thrilled, fascinated and abominated by what a man will do for a piece of exquisite green stone.