We publish courtesy of The New York Times
Author: ANDREW JACOBS
KHOTAN, China — As long as anyone here can remember, the muddy river that flows through this oasis city in southern Xinjiang has yielded creamy white stones, their rough edges polished smooth by the waters that tumble down the mountains from Tibet.
And as long as anyone can remember, those stones — a type of semitranslucent jade — were about as valued as, well, a pile of river rocks.
Lohman Tohti, 30, can recall as a child heaving melon-size hunks into the sandbags that were used to thwart rising floodwaters of the aptly named White Jade River. When Chinese buyers began arriving here in the early 1990s and the locals got wind of the stones’ potential value, his uncle made an enviable deal: he traded a rock the girth of a well-fed hog for a skinny cow. “Today, my uncle would be a millionaire,” Mr. Tohti, now a jade dealer, said with a wince.
These days, Khotan is mad about jade, or at least the riches it has brought to a city whose previous bout of prosperity occurred a few thousand years ago, when traders from ancient Rome and Constantinople were making their way toward Xi’an, then the capital of the Chinese empire and the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.
Ounce for ounce, the finest jade has become more valuable than gold, with the most prized nuggets of “mutton fat” jade — so-named for its marbled white consistency — fetching $3,000 an ounce, a tenfold increase from a decade ago.
The jade boom, which appears to have reached a frenzy in the past year or two, has been fueled by the Chinese, whose new wealth and a 5,000-year affinity for the stone has turned Khotan cotton farmers into jade tycoons.
“The love of jade is in our blood, and now that people have money, everyone wants a piece around their neck or in their home,” Zhang Xiankuo, a Chinese salesman, said as he opened a safe to show off his company’s most expensive carved items, among them a pair of kissing swans that retails for $150,000 and a contemporary rendition of a Tang dynasty beauty, her breasts impertinently exposed, that can be purchased for $80,000.
In a region convulsed by ethnic strife, it is notable that the manna appears to have enriched both Khotan’s native Uighurs, Turkic-speaking adherents of Islam, and the more recently arrived Han Chinese, who are often viewed unlovingly as rapacious colonizers.
The Uighurs have largely made their fortune harvesting jade from the river and selling it to Chinese middlemen. Because devout Muslims are proscribed from dealing in certain representational images, the Han have come to monopolize the carving and sale of Buddhist figurines, stalking tigers and the miniature cabbages that are popular among Chinese consumers.
“Jade has no meaning for our culture, but we are thankful to Allah that the Chinese go crazy for it,” said Yacen Ahmat, a Uighur who spends seven days a week working the crowds at Khotan’s jade bazaar, a frenetic marketplace dominated by prospectors trying to unload their catch on savvy wholesalers — or hapless tourists who often return home with overpriced rocks.
Hu Xianli, a self-professed jade fanatic from eastern Zhejiang Province, said he had been duped countless times over the years. At best, he has grossly overpaid for mediocre specimens. At worst, he has mistaken chemically treated rocks for mutton-fat beauties.
A retired railway engineer, he likened his relationship with jade to an overpriced college education. “In the early years I paid a lot of tuition, but now that I’ve finally graduated, I’m not so easily fooled,” said Mr. Hu, 59, as a throng of overeager sellers, hands full of egg-size stones, thrust their wares into his face.
Although archaeologists have unearthed Neolithic jade tools along the Yellow River, the Chinese affection for the stone received a lift around 1600 B.C., when Shang dynasty royals took to sleeping on jade pillows, signing edicts with jade chops and interring their loved ones in jade-tile frocks. Legend suggests that only emperors were allowed to possess carved jade and that the pursuit of an especially cherished specimen might be worth the deaths of 10,000 soldiers. It is no coincidence that the Chinese character for king has the same root as the character for jade.
Contemporary Chinese is flecked with references to jade — the word is used to describe beautiful and pure women — and many people say they believe it has medicinal and even magical powers. A chip of jade worn around the wrist can soothe a frightened child, improve circulation or absorb bad energy, the Chinese say. According to an age-old belief, jade provides a link between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Some of those beliefs are bolstered by the jade’s tendency to change color when worn on the body.
Another reason behind the spike in Khotan jade prices, at least according to traders, is that the jade is becoming increasingly scarce. Over the past decade, bulldozers and excavators have torn apart the banks of the White Jade River several times over. Until the practice was banned three years ago, mining companies, some owned by local government officials, would divert the river in their quest to find new quarry.
Even if river jade is increasingly hard to find, the promise of instant riches brings entire families to the river, where they can be seen, heads bowed, pacing the banks. The lucky ones head straight to the bazaar, where crowds of Uighur men in embroidered skullcaps ogle and haggle over the latest finds.
Skeptics, however, say the rising prices have more to do with hype than scarcity. Wang Chunyun, a jade expert at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, says a thick lode of unexploited white jade runs through the Kunlun Mountains that skirt Xinjiang and Tibet. It can also be found across the world, from Australia to Korea to Poland, where a lack of demand keeps it unmined. “The rarity of jade is a myth,” Mr. Wang said in a telephone interview. “I’ve never said this to Chinese businessmen because it would be too much of a psychological blow.”
Back at the market, Ai Shan Zhang, a well-to-do Uighur salesman, shook his head and smiled when it was suggested that Khotan jade might not be as precious as diamonds. The Chinese zeal for it is so great, he said, that he has stopped wearing it, especially when meeting with government officials whose favor is sometimes required in the course of doing business. “If they notice a nice piece hanging around my neck, they ask to borrow it,” he said. “And once they take it, they never give it back.”