Ancient Chinese folklore has it that, when his work was done, Pangu – the creator of the universe in Chinese mythology – laid down and died.
His breath became the wind, his eyes the sun and moon, his flesh the land, his teeth and bones metals and rocks, and his marrow – pearls and jade.
It is thus easy to see why jade features so prominently in Chinese culture. Chinese characters containing the jade radical are often associated with rarity, virtue and beauty; royalty wore it on their belts and headwear for protection, and decorated their chambers – and even burial suites – with it. Nephrite harvested from regions such as Inner Mongolia, Liaoning province and areas around the Yangtze River Delta were regarded as the “imperial gem”.
Burmese jade, or jadeite as it is also called, was only introduced to China in the 19th century, and gained favour among the nouveau riche of the Qing Dynasty with its higher degree of lustre. It continues to outshine nephrite in today’s market in terms of popularity, but to purists and scholars of the Chinese culture, it is still nephrite that remains the symbol of nobility.
A rediscovering of roots
And when Mark Chan embarked on a journey of rediscovering his Chinese heritage, it was nephrite that intrigued him. He was then 26 years of age, and anxious to learn to read and write Chinese – having only learned Malay and English in school – due to his engagements as a songwriter to popular Chinese artistes. Not one to be satisfied with a superficial introduction, he proceeded to deep dive into the culture behind the language through reading classical tomes and picking up calligraphy.
And he also discovered the traditional visual arts of China. “I started to learn about bronzes, ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, architecture, costumes – and jades. Old jade in particular fascinated me because it possessed a different aesthetic from that of our modern world, where glittering diamonds and faceted gemstones are of paramount value,” says Chan.
“I realised that there is beauty in things that do not try to dazzle us through reflection and refraction; that there is beauty in an opaque stone that turns light away. So, all the jades I collect are nephrite, also called ruan yu in Mandarin, which appealed to the Chinese thousands of years ago. This is opposed to Burmese jade, which I consider a brash, modern interloper. And nephrite wasn’t just loved by the ancient Chinese, but also in India, where hetian yu (a class of white nephrite also known as mutton fat jade) is found; and by the old civilisations of Mexico and central America.”
(Related: Where to buy jade jewellery)
While some might say that jadeite is a superior stone in terms of clarity, lustre and hardness, Chan argues that these classifications are modern Western constructs to help those who do not understand jade assess its value. “People today might rave about a piece because it is transparent – but that wasn’t the value of old jade. There is a clash of different cultures and viewpoints when it comes to the appreciation of jade,” says Chan.
What is more valued in old nephrite is an almost pearlised lustre that shows itself only upon close inspection and an inimitable softness. For Chan, the allure of an antique piece of jade also lies in the artistic style of the ancient Chinese. “The common perception we have of the traditional Chinese aesthetic is usually derived from the Qing dynasty [1636 to 1911], which was a baroque period of visual art in China. Few know of the austere, simple artistic style of say, the Song dynasty [960 to 1279], often mistaking it for a Japanese style without knowing that the Japanese were actually replicating of the imperial style of Chang’An [a cultural centre during the Song dynasty],” shares Chan.
This quiet beauty appreciated by the emperors and nobility of the past is what speaks to Chan the most, leading him to look out for old nephrite pieces when he started to collect jade.
A living collection
He began by visiting museums to view the many jade artefacts – something he recommends anybody to do if they are interested in starting a jade collection (“Get a museum pass. The more you see, the better you will be able to recognise true antique pieces”).
And he made friends with antique dealers. “I didn’t know I was collecting – I was just greedily buying jade pendants that I could wear. It always just starts with an interest and then grows into a collection,” says Chan, who has lost count of the pieces he has amassed over the decades.
“A lot of these old pieces are burial jade, of which there are an abundance in China. However, the value of old jade has grown exponentially with the rise of China and nationalistic citizens looking to buy back a piece of their past. If I started collecting now, I wouldn’t be able to afford the pieces,” Chan notes. Prices now can range from four to six figures. He doesn’t seek to authenticate or valuate the pieces in his collection either. “I had three pieces authenticated, but pinpointing the provenance of these pieces can be very tricky. On top of that, it is not uncommon in the art world to have pieces declared a fake, and then genuine again, years down the road. I collect for spiritual and aesthetic reasons, not for investment purposes.”