As the very symbol of yang, it ‘is consequently endowed with a whole collection of solar, imperial and indestructible qualities’. Hence the important role which it played in Ancient China.
A distinction is drawn between nephritic jade (silicate of calcium and magnesium) and jadeite (silicate of aluminium and sodium). The word ‘jade’ derives from the Latin ilia (‘guts’) via the Spanish ijada (‘side’) and the adjective ‘nephritic’ alludes to the specific use of this mineral in European medicine in cases of kidney disease.
There is no such distinction in the Chinese word yu and old descriptions relate only to the beauty of the stone. In fact jadeite only supplanted nephritic jade in China during the eighteenth century, when the usurping Manchu Ching dynasty came to power, a fact of undoubted significance given that jade is linked with the exercise of the Mandate of Heaven.
Its beauty makes jade an emblem of perfection; of the five transcendent qualities of benignity, lucidity, resonance, immutability and purity; of most of the moral virtues of charity, prudence, justice, grace, harmony, sincerity and good faith; as well as of Heaven and Earth, of righteousness and, the Li-Chi adds, ‘of the way of righteousness’. Thus, says Segalen, to praise jade ‘is to praise righteousness itself. Jade is comfort, warmth and preciousness. It is not simply the sight or feel of jade which inclined a person to righteousness, perhaps it should be described rather by the successive stages of sight and contemplation followed by touch and physical perception. Another factor was resonance. Court officials wore jade ornaments on their girdles. Their resonance was precisely calculated so that, when he rode in his chariot, the sound would maintain the wearer in the paths of loyalty and righteousness. This resonance was in fact an echo of the chord which ruled the harmony of Heaven and Earth. As the Pi, the disc with a hole in the middle, jade symbolized Heaven.
It was for this reason that the imperial seal was made of jade and from earliest times transmission of the seal in practical terms was the same as passing on the Mandate of Heaven. Jade therefore symbolized kingship. Furthermore the ideogram yu is almost detail for detail similar to the ideogram wang, denoting the sovereign in the character of a ruler. In fact wang derives from the root yu and thus it might be said that ‘jade’ makes the ‘sovereign’. The ideogram comprises three horizontal brush-strokes cut by a vertical stroke and is unanimously regarded as an image of the Supreme Triad - Heaven, Mankind and Earth - united by the World Axis, or Way. The Central Way (Chung-tao) is identified with the Royal Way (wang-tao) - ‘the One uniting the Three, is the King’ (Tung Chung-chu).
If, therefore, wang is confirmed graphically as the ‘Son of Heaven and Earth’, the same is true of yu. Jade was believed to be formed in the womb of Earth through the agency of lightning, that is of cosmic activity. Cosmic impregnation was also the image of the way in which the ‘Embryo of Immortality’ was formed in internal alchemy. After all, the jade of Pien Ho which was used to make the talisman of the Chou was revealed by a phoenix. Alchemists also claimed that jade took shape in the womb of Earth in the slow ‘ripening’ of the embryonic stone. This made them regard it as to be identified with gold. Furthermore, knowing that the jade of these fabulous accounts is always white jade and that white is the colour of alchemical gold, it will be seen that jade and the Philosopher’s Stone are identical and that jade is a symbol of immortality. It might be added that there exists another ideogram for yu, a combination of kin (gold) and yu (jade) with the meaning of ‘pure gold’.
There was jade in plenty in the abode of the Immortals. As an elixir of longevity it was eaten in powdered form or liquefied or mixed with dew and drunk from a jade chalice. Some objects placed in the grave and inscribed with ‘jade characters’ enabled the dead person to be reborn. Jade (or gold) inserted in votive statues endowed them with life. Jade partakes of the character of gold as the essential yang, it helps revive the individual and return him or her to a primeval state.
It should also be observed that many critics maintain that the primitive ideogram yu comprised three pieces of perforated jade joined by a thread or stalk. If this is so, it is an exact image of the primitive Vedic altar, its three pieces corresponding to the three worlds - Earth, Intermediate World and Heaven - with the stalk representing the World axis.
In Central America ‘this stone symbolizes the soul, spirit, heart or nucleus of an individual’ and is by analogy identified with bone. In Mexico it was customary to place a piece of jade in the dead person’s mouth.
According to Krickeberg, in Ancient Mexico, because of its translucency and green colour, ‘jade was a symbol of water and the burgeoning of plant life.’ The La Venta civilization regarded jade objects as essential items of grave-furniture. During the Classical period in Central America, priests offered the rain- and food-god ‘precious water’, containing jade chips or dust (KRIR). Jade was a Maya symbol of fructifying rain becoming, by extension, the symbol of blood and of the new year.
When known as Chalchiuatl, ‘precious water’, green jade symbolized the blood of human sacrifice spurting out to revive the Sun or offered to the rain-god.
African races traditionally place the same symbolic meaning upon green stones. Thus, in a Dogon myth, a water spirit appeared, rising out of a storm-swollen stream. Round its head a ‘rain-green’ serpent was wreathed. When the spirit emerged from the waters, in the guise of a woman, the snake changed into a green stone which the woman hung from her neck. Similar stones endowed with sacred properties which link them to fertility are kept in Sudanese shrines.
For the highly important symbolism of the jade object, see under ring.