Jade: Imperial green gem (Part 4) – the symbolic and spiritual gem

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Sonja McLahlan (UK)

In this part of fourth part of my series on jade, I will discuss the alternative and spiritual uses of jade, its symbolism and the various names different cultures have given it over time. Jade is considered to be a powerful and influential gemstone in both modern and traditional cultures. In ancient Egypt, jade was admired as a stone of love, inner peace and of harmony and balance. In many other regions and cultures, jade has also been regarded as a lucky or protective stone.

Fig. 1. Fish hook.
Fig. 2. Manaia.
Fig. 3. Triple twist.

These influences were especially important for the Maoris, Mayans and the Chinese, and can still be seen today reflected in modern jewellery and sculpture.

Maori symbolism

The Maoris have up to 200 different names for jade, but only 20 are in common use. A few examples are discussed below:

  • Pounamu: this is the common Maori name for nephrite jade.
  • Inanga: this is named after whitebait (a small fish) and is characterised by pearly white or bluish-green colour. It is the most highly prized of all the jades.
  • Kahurangi: this means a treasured possession, jewel or prize, and is a very clear apple green jade with very few flaws.
  • Kawakawa: this is named after the native kawakawa plant and is a name given to a darker green jade, sometimes distinguished by small, dark inclusions.
  • Rimu: this is named after the Rimu Valley along the Arahura River and is a very dark-green.

Maori symbolism is reflected in the carvings of several forms of jade, each with their own unique meanings:

  • Hooks: these represent strength and determination, and are thought to bring peace, prosperity and good health. They also provide safe passage over water.
  • Korus: these curled spiral symbols depict new beginnings, growth and harmony.
  • Twists: these represent a bonding of friendship – of two lives becoming one for all eternity.
  • Manaia: these consist of the head of a bird, the body of a man and the tail of a fish, and represent the balance between sky, earth and sea.
Fig. 4. Hook from New Zealand.

Central American jade influences

As long ago as the pre-Columbian period, the Mayans, Aztecs and Olmecs of Central America honoured and esteemed jade more highly than gold.

The Mayans had a number of symbolic meanings for jade. These included a spiritual representation of maize, as well as an earthbound representation of wind and also of breath and life. As such, jade was an important component of funeral rite ceremonies and was used in the ritual conjuring of Mayan gods and ancestors.

Jade is recognised by some cultures as a remedy for kidney ailments. Due to its assumed beneficial effect on the kidneys, the stone was also known as lapis nephriticus, which it is thought to be where the term ‘nephrite’ came from.

Ancient Chinese interpretation of jade

The ancient Chinese consumed powdered jade as a medical remedy for just about every ailment known and it was thought that, perhaps, it could even bring immortality if consumed in the right quantities. It was also consumed by the dying as a powerful embalming solution.

The stone is thought to embody the philosophy of Confucius (551BC to 479BC), who described the 11 virtues of jade, including wisdom, justice, compassion, modesty and courage.

Fig. 5. A Burmese jade dragon mounted on a wooden base.

To the Chinese, wearing jade was thought to confer greater health and vitality, but also to prevent bad luck and misfortune. One ancient Chinese text states:

Jade cannot prevent the living from dying, but it can preserve the corpse from decaying.

In the light of this, Liu Sheng, the ruler of the Zhongshan State (113BC), was buried in a suit of 2,498 pieces of jade sewn together with several pounds of gold thread.

Fig. 6. Manaia mask.

Modern use of jade continues to be symbolic, in particular, of the good, the beautiful and the precious, and more curiously, is also used to symbolise feminine erotic form. Today, jade is used in the Chinese art of Feng Shui, as it is thought to be a link between both the physical and spiritual worlds. It is also thought to be the form that most embodies both the yin and yang qualities of Heaven and Earth. As such, it is called ‘the stone of Heaven’. Therefore, jade has retained its importance as a symbolic stone and is regularly used in ornaments and religious artefacts in many cultures. The stone is also valued for its beauty and the emerald green shades are highly sought after by many collectors from across the world.

Jade is a polycrystalline gem and is a generic term for two different minerals: jadeite and nephrite. Both materials are very tough as they consist of closely packed and dense crystals. The main differences between the two types are in their chemical composition and the range of colours in which they are found. The toughness of jade is remarkable. It has a strength greater than steel and was put to work by many early civilizations for axes, knives and weapons.”

In the next part of the series, I will look at jade as a trade commodity and also at its value. I will also look at the processing and cutting methods used today.

Online references:
Other parts to this series comprise:
Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 1) – mining the gem
Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 2) – decorative and ornamental jade
Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 3) – the scientific properties of jade
Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 4) – the symbolic and spiritual gem
Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 5) – the world marketplace


We are grateful for the jade images provided by Mountain Jade: www.mountainjade.co.nz.

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