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The Silent Language of Jade

Learning the lingo leads to a new appreciation.


It was called Tian Shi, the stone of heaven. Treasured for its ethereal beauty, jade was worn by emperors and courtesans, mandarins and scholars. The immigrants who left China to work the cane and pineapple fields of Waipahu and Wahiawä carried with them a reverence for this precious stone. From their wages, they purchased jade ornaments for their wives and daughters, testament to their newfound prosperity. Jade in its myriad forms has become as much a part of local culture as manapua and li hing mui. It can be found anywhere from the high priced jewelry stores at Ala Moana to the stalls in the International Marketplace. But the spot to really see jade is Chinatown. Here, tucked between lei stands and Chinese herbalists, are small shops that specialize in only one thing-the stone of heaven.

A visit to one of these establishments can prove both wondrous and baffling. Step through the door and everywhere around you, nested in glass cases and hung along the walls, are innumerable examples of the most exquisite stone in the world. Just the range of colors is astonishing. Immediately abandoned is any notion that jade is simply green. Set beside the familiar green hues of deep bamboo, tart apple and rich imperial are pale lavenders, honeyed ambers and soft, misted whites. The shapes are equally varied. There are circular bangles that wrap themselves around a woman's wrist like coils of cloud, cabochons set in rings of gold and delicate earrings like drops of rain hanging from pine needle tips. It is when you begin to examine the pendants, however, that awe turns to puzzlement as you find yourself facing a multitude of tiny mysteries.

Some of these carvings are achingly beautiful, such as a pair of mandarin ducks, their necks intertwined in sleep. Others delight-a lively fish caught as if leaping from the water, or a grinning monkey with delicately carved toes hugging a huge peach. Still others are more confusing. What is one to make of a pendant depicting a pair of leather-winged bats, or something that looks like a misshapen mushroom? Why would anyone want to carve an exquisite piece of butterscotch jade into the shape of a fungus? Though the novice jade shopper may not realize it, each of these carvings is a window into Chinese culture. They are part of a vast vocabulary of symbols that has evolved over more than five thousand years. Within each ornament rests a story, but to discover it, you must first learn to decipher the silent language of jade.

The color of jade is caused by iron (green or brown), chromium (bright green) or maybe manganese (violet). Photo: Rae Huo, Jade courtesy: L. Rafael

The best place to begin is with bats. Unlike his counterpart in European tradition, often seen as a sinister manifestation of the powers of darkness, the Chinese bat is a benign and even auspicious creature. In Mandarin, the bat is called pian fu, or simply fu. Its name shares the same sound as the word for good fortune (fu). Bats, therefore, are considered to be omens of luck. Through the centuries, the image of a bat has become a form of shorthand, a simple and easily recognizable way to express an abstract idea. To give someone a jade pendant carved in the shape of a bat is to wish them good fortune. A pair of bats simply doubles the wish, and five bats are even more auspicious. A grouping of five bats represents the Five Chinese Blessings: long life, riches, health, virtue and a natural death. (In ancient China, where poverty and pestilence were the rule, a natural death was an all-too-rare event.)

The bat is not the only animal whose name has given it symbolic significance. The Chinese word for fish (yu) echoes the word for abundance (yu). The fish, therefore, has become an emblem of wealth. Not surprisingly, fish is a popular dish served during Chinese New Year festivities, when families seek to secure prosperity for the coming year. A sheet of red paper cut into intricate silhouettes of schooling fish is hung in houses at New Years to insure nian nian you yu-abundance throughout the year.

Different varieties of fish possess their own special significance. While it is not difficult to decipher the symbolism inherent in the image of a gold fish, the carp holds a more complex meaning. Except for a difference in pronunciation, the words for carp (li) and advantage (li) are identical. The carp is thus seen as a sign of benefit or advantage, particularly in business. In downtown Honolulu, where ancient traditions blend seamlessly into modern life, one occasionally encounters a carp pond in the lobby of a bank or a high-rise office tower.

There is a Chinese legend that if a carp, on its journey upstream, should leap the rapids of Long Men (the Dragon Gate) on the upper reaches of the Yellow River it will be transformed into a dragon. Hence, the carp came to be seen as an emblem of success through perseverance. During the years of empire, a jade carp was considered an appropriate gift for an aspiring scholar. It conveyed the symbolic wish that he might leap successfully through the state examinations and be transformed into a government official. Even today, the image of a leaping fish embodies a wish for wealth and advancement.

A pair of fish carries a somewhat different meaning. "Like fish in water" is a common Chinese saying used to describe two people in love. A jade pendant carved in the shape of two fish swimming together represents two lovers and is considered an appropriate gift for a young couple. Another age-old symbol of affection is the mandarin duck. Since these birds live in pairs and mate for life, they are seen as natural symbols of fidelity. A common Chinese wedding present used to be a pair of ceramic pillows painted with pictures of mandarin ducks. Since modern newlyweds seem to prefer softer bedding, a jade pendant showing a duck and drake floating side by side is now regarded as a more acceptable gift.

But what of our monkey and his giant peach? The monkey (hou) is the ninth of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. A hou carved in jade would therefore be a natural gift for someone born in the year of the monkey. The peach our little friend is holding recalls the legend of the mischievous monkey god Sun Wu Kong and the Tree of Immortality. This miraculous peach tree grows in the garden of Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, whose palace lies deep in the Kunlun Mountains. It is said to bear fruit only once every thousand years (some say three thousand, others say nine thousand-but why quibble). On the day that the peaches of immortality ripen, Xi Wang Mu invites all of the immortals to a great banquet. During the preparations for one such feast, the monkey god, called Sun, broke into the garden and, before anyone could stop him, plucked and ate all of the peaches, insuring his own immortality. It seems only natural, therefore, that one of Sun's brethren should be found with his paws on a peach. Together, the monkey and the peach symbolize cleverness and long life.

Although the peach is the most common symbol of immortality, and, by inference, of longevity, it is far from being the only one. The elderly are held in great regard in traditional Chinese society. As a result, the emblems of long life are many and varied. Among them is the gnarled and wind-bent pine, which is a favorite motif in jade work. Because it remains evergreen throughout the winter, even though covered with a dusting of white, the pine is seen as a symbol of vigorous old age. It is often shown in carvings alongside mountains and cranes, two other symbols of longevity. Credited by the ancient Chinese with an almost unlimited span of life, the crane was reputed to be the favored mode of transport for immortals on their social visits between mountain peaks.

Jade jewelry reveals symbolism. For example, the double pendant shown here has a mushroom-like plant on the bottom, expressing immortality.

Another animal associated with longevity is the deer. Like the crane, it was believed to live to a great age. The deer was also said to be the only creature capable of finding the ling zhi, the herb of immortality. Though various ancient authors provide differing descriptions of this legendary plant, it is most commonly depicted as a type of fungus. One occasionally comes across a piece of jade carved in the shape of a deer holding in its mouth this strange, mushroom-like plant. Today, its contemporary relative, a reddish tree fungus also called ling zhi, is offered for sale in apothecary shops throughout Chinatown.

Over the course of centuries, Chinese language, legend and history have interwoven to form a rich brocade of symbols. Bats, fish, monkeys and even mushrooms have become endowed through time with resonant layers of meaning. Each is at once itself, and yet something more. So the next time you find yourself in a jade shop, take a closer look at the carvings. To those who can read this silent language, a pendant is no longer just a beautiful piece of jade.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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