Hotan, ancient source of China’s jade (2009)

Not many people who visit this part of the world get to actually cross the desert and see ancient oasis towns on both the Northern and the Southern routes but the Silk Road was what we’d signed up for and the Silk Road was what we were going to get. The crossing was actually 590k along the only road in the region; I don’t have many pictures but then sand dunes can get extremely monotonous after a while and, yes, there was another officious looking road block for “health screening”. Our guide took the trouble to supply an interesting variety of fruit juices and soft drinks to supplement the vast quantities of water we were advised to drink and knowing that we could have as many “comfort” breaks as we needed meant that we were able to keep properly hydrated throughout the trip. The lack of mobile phone coverage, of course, meant that a breakdown was another potential danger but our driver took the bus off to a garage for a check up on the evening before and details of our journey had been submitted to the ever watchful authorities.

Later that evening, after a shower and a couple of beers, we had the dubious pleasure of watching the Beijing National Day Parade on television; there wasn’t much else available after all. A seemingly endless parade of military personnel and colourfully dressed minorities passed across Tienanmen Square in front of a dais on which stood a group of superanuated figureheads, whose mask-like features and boot-black hair dye reminded me of the Soviet Politburo in its decline. Locally, there was at least a firework display. But the next day was a holiday and so the Museum was closed, however our guides felt that it was too important to be missed and so, after a few local phone calls, it was opened specially for us.

I can’t overestimate the importance of having been able to see the relics from the sand tombs of the desert region. A magnificent state of preservation means that textiles and finely worked wooden objects can be seen almost as they looked thousands of years ago when they were first buried. An amazing mixture of ancient Greek, Persian and Chinese styles can be seen in the collection, sometimes even in a single item. Photography wasn’t allowed and I have not been able to download many suitable pictures but I do remember seeing one 2,000 year old piece of brocade upon which were depicted figures with curly hair and classical Greek torsos alongside an obviously Chinese script.

Outside, in Unity Square, in a less convincing example of the region’s multi-culturalism, a statue shows Chairman Mao Zedong greeting a local man named Kurbam Tulum, who in the nineteen fifties was said to be so enthusiastic about the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army in the region that he set off with his donkey cart loaded with fruit to make the 1,500k journey to the state capital of Urumqi. This story reached Beijing, where it was seen as an important political opportunity for the Communist Party and “Uncle Kurbam” was flown the rest of the way to meet with the great man himself. He remains the only person to share a statue with Mao to this day, despite the fact that government re-settlement policies have reduced the Uyghur population of Xijiang from 95% to less than 50% with a concomitent reduction in civil rights. Apparently some uses of the Google translation facility have rendered the name Kurbam as “Vomit” and local people are not immune to the irony.

The Hotan River is the only source of the nephrite jade which was so widely used in the Imperial Courts of Dynastic China. Its transport East by human hand from these remote desert regions signifies the fact that there were important trade connections in place even before the Silk Route. Although the boulders and pebbles found in the river beds are the result of the weathering of deposits buried in the bedrock of the surrounding mountain ranges, it was only alluvially that it was available to be collected. Recent attempts to blast raw jade out of the mountainside have been thwarted by satellite surveillance.

It was great fun to visit a jade working factory and calculate that, at the rates they were attempting to charge the unwary visitor, that small unguarded shack of a building must have contained several million dollars worth of merchandise. Prices were slightly lower on the river bank but still exorbitant when a sideways glance revealed that great boulders of the same material were being used as door stops and weights to support rickety pieces of polishing machinery. Everyone has to make a living somehow though and we gladly paid over the odds for a few small specimens in order to have the opportunity to hunt the riverbed and take photographs in peace.

I am pretty sure that the tiny specimen which I found myself was genuine although local opinion pronounced it not nearly smooth enough. I hadn’t the heart to explain that almost all of the silky smooth pebbles being offered for sale had obviously been through the tumble polisher at least once. Later, when we visited the remote remains of ancient Hotan, one of the country girls tried to force a too tight bangle onto my wrist despite my cries of protest. These girls, so poor that they all crowded round to snatch the complementary combs, soap and toothpaste that we had been warned to bring from the hotel, were not above trying to charge fifty to a hundred dollars for something that could be picked up for less than a tenth of that price in the regular London or Arizona gem shows.

And that is precisely what I did. Back home I found a few attractive, worked specimens to supplement my Hotan pebbles. The photographs are priceless though.

Categories: Central Asia, China, Far East


  • nicola ainsworth says:

    test message, still trying to get this website to accept comments

  • Sandy says:

    A fascinating account of the history of jade and current local markets for that wonderful gemstone.

  • Chris says:

    Poor old Uncle Vomit, I’m sure he meant well!

    Which was the jade pebble that you found, then?

  • Nicola Ainsworth says:

    picture 43, pebbles clockwise from the top:

    1 Water-worn, swirly patterned non-jade rock from river bed

    2 Antique Zodiacal rat, Hotan jade bought in London

    3 Water-worn (and probably tumble polished) jade pebble bought from local girls

    4 Fine chrome green jade pebble bought in workshop

    5 Small pebble found by me in riverbed

    6 Tumble polished and artificially stained pebble bought from boy on riverbank

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