I have just returned from China with a carving of a mountain scene on a two kilo piece of Australian nephrite jade, a mountain scene based on a poem written during the Tang Dynasty.
Having been interested in jade for about thirty years I am in awe of how each piece of jade has its own story, usually limited to a transmission by person to person. From the Maori woman I met at a jade centre in Greymouth in New Zealand who told me the story of how, once in car crash, her jade bangle shattered as if to absorb the harm she would have otherwise suffered, to the huge and inspirational Jade Buddha, the largest gem quality piece of jade in the world and housed in the Buddhist complex in Bendigo after travelling the Buddhist temples of the world over the past few years, the stories of jade and its culture are endless in their manifestations.
My stone’s story began with a chunk of Tamworth jade I once picked up at a local lapidary market. Brian Bowen, a fellow member of Illawarra Lapidary Club, once had the mining rights to an outcrop of jade in the Tamworth region. He called it Weabonga jade, named after the small township where the mine was located. This mine has a fascinating history. I once read that Dr Victor Chang, the leading Sydney heart surgeon who was murdered in 1991 regularly visited this mine to fossick for jade. The story goes that he and friends from Hong Kong who flew to Sydney for the weekend would drive up there and fossick before returning to work on Monday.
My sample of Weabonga jade had sat in my house for almost a decade. About five years ago, I took a smaller sample of similar jade to a friend in Xiamen, Fujian Province, a person who loved jade, especially designing patterns to be carved. He had links with a master carver. I asked him to see about getting my smaller piece of jade carved but the master refused, he said the quality was too low. So I shelved my dreams.
Last year, we visited Beijing. An old work friend of my wife’s, Xiao Nu (Little Cow), invited us to a Peking Duck Restaurant. She was so excited to tell us about her new found love of jade. She had so been bitten by the jade bug. She was putting down serious money to buy jadeite from Myanmar. It is a high risk venture as you buy the boulder without knowing the quality of the jade inside. The Chinese call it duyu (赌玉) or jade gambling. Friends pool funds to afford a boulder. In one of Xiao Nu’s ventures, she and nineteen other friends put down a few thousand Chinese dollars each, and they were able to carve 20 high quality jadeite bangles which well covered costs.
I asked her about finding a carver for my stone. She said her carver only carved jadeite, not nephrite, also known as soft jade. But this carver offered the contact details of a friend who did carve soft jade. So this year when we went to Beijing we tracked this new carver down in the suburbs of Beijing. His name was Mr Yu Feng.
We were so excited to organise this carving, incidentally to mark our 30th wedding anniversary, we didn’t give much thought to the design. We just said we wanted a mountain scene. I just asked the carver to give us the best possible carving for the time he had to allocate to it. After one week, he texted us a sketch of what he intended. After we confirmed the sketch, he took another two weeks to carve and polish the stone. He chose a scene based on a Tang Dynasty poem called Night boat moored at Maple Bridge (夜泊枫桥) by poet Zhang Ji (张继) born in 712 AD in Xiangyang, China.
Night boat moored at Maple Bridge
The moon is down, ravens caw, a frostiness fills the sky;
By the riverside maples and fishing lights, sad, insomnious I lie.
Beyond the walls of Gusu City, where Hanshan Temple stands,
Bong goes the bell at midnight to touch the boat of the passerby.
This translation is by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 黃宏發
“Gusu” is present day Suzhou 蘇州.
The carving is 15.5 cm wide by 15.5 cm high and 5 cm deep. It weights 2 kg and is housed in Loftus NSW.
Incidentally, one of my favourite Chinese novels is The Jade King by Huo Da published in 1992. There is an English translation around and well worth finding. It tells the story of three generations of a Muslim family in Beijing who were devoted to the craft of jade. This book won the top literary accolade in China, the Mao Dun Prize for Literature.