Nephrite Jade and Its Timeless Appeal By Majorie Chiew
An antique dealer is bowled over by the understated beauty and rich history of Chinese jade.
ART and antique dealer W.K. Chui was mesmerised by jade when he visited the museums in London 20 years ago. The intricate carvings, understated beauty and rich history of the jade exhibits fascinated Chui, and prompted him to start his own collection.
Chui, 64, says he collects Chinese jade or nephrite, not Burmese jade which most people wear as jewellery.
“Before the introduction of Burmese jade (jadeite) into the royal courts of China about 300 years ago, both men and women wore Chinese jade as a symbol of authority, status and social standing. These days, many people do not know the history of Chinese jade; that’s a shame,” says Chui.
Before he discovered Chinese nephrite, Chui wore a couple of Burmese jade rings given by his late father. “Although I do wear Burmese jade, I collect only Chinese nephrite because of its rich history and subtle beauty.”
Nowadays, Chui is always seen with his Chinese jade pendants, jadeite rings, and a jade item dangling from his belt.
When his hands are free, he would be rubbing a jade article with his palms. It is almost second nature to him. “That’s what nephrite jade collectors do,” Chui explains. “It allows a collector to train his fingers to get a tactile feel of jade, and gauge the heft of genuine nephrite. It has a calming effect, too, but that’s secondary.”
Some nephrite jade pieces in Chui’s collection: A snuff bottle, a cylinder, a thumb ring and a jade carved like a spear head.
“Many are simply not aware of the history and significance of Chinese nephrite to Chinese culture and society,” Chui points out, mindful of the local market’s preference for Burmese jade. “Men generally go for Burmese jade as they deem it fashionable.”
Superstitions surrounding jade endure to this day. Legend has it that Taoist alchemists believed jade to be the philosopher’s stone.
“During the Han Dynasty, emperors were buried in jade gowns and jade cicadas were placed on the tongues of dead emperors to prevent decomposition and safeguard qi or energy,” explains Chui. “A jade disc symbolising the moon or the sun was placed on the head of the dead, purportedly for a good rebirth.”
The cicada is regarded as a summer insect in Japan and China, and can live up to 20 years. These insects bury themselves under the soil during winter, and emerge in summer. Hence, the cicada is a symbol of rebirth.
Hard as it may be, jade jewellery can chip or crack, warns Chui. “One should not knock jade jewellery against hard surfaces. The most common belief is that jade protects the wearer from illness and misfortune. So when a jade article breaks, it is seen as taking on misfortune, in place of its wearer.”
A nephrite ring worn on the thumb.
“Burmese jade is waxed to give it a shine. It should not be exposed to harsh, caustic chemicals which may dissolve the protective wax layer.”
Chui points out that some of the most valuable jade pieces were from the tombs of kings and royalties. “I have a small piece of jade purportedly from the Warring States (475-221 BC).”
He rubbishes the suggestion that it is bad luck to turn pieces of broken jade into smaller articles. “As a matter of fact, some very old jade jewellery were fairly large, so they were broken into smaller pieces of beautifully carved items to fetch higher prices.”
Another common belief is that jade changes colour and turns greener if it “likes” the wearer.
Well, Chui does not subscribe to this. However, he proffers: “I believe jade may change colour slightly if worn against the body for a long time. This could be due to the warmth of the body and/or chemicals released by the body. I have jade pieces which have changed colour, especially antique jade.”
Chui, who owns an antique shop in Petaling Jaya, has no intention of selling his prized jade collection.
“I want to bequeath them to my sons,” says the father of three boys.