A craftsman carves on stone while making an ink slab. Quanjing photos
The Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics revealed the Middle Kingdom on a fascinating scroll that displayed some of the most iconic Chinese elements: beautiful blue-white porcelain, the writing brush, xuan paper and ink slab. But perhaps most attractive of all were the Olympic medals inlaid with jade.
As more people grow tired of package tours and long for an unforgettable rendezvous with local people in their everyday life, it may be a good idea to follow the trail of these "Chinese elements" to discover a China seldom seen in tourist brochures.
Best of heaven and earth
An appreciation of jade is very basic to Chinese culture. The oldest jade artifacts discovered so far are earrings, daggers and axes found in Xinglongwa of Chifeng, Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
Dating back 8,000 years to the mid-Neolithic Age, the 100 plus jade pieces found eight years ago are seen as the beginning of the jade culture in China and the whole world.
Chinese people see jade as the crystallization of the best of both heaven and earth. Ancient shamans once used various jade instruments to communicate with the deities. Feudal rulers also had jade seals and other ornaments made to symbolize their supreme power. A good example of this is the Jade Emperor, supreme deity in Taoism.
Hotan at the foot of the Kunlun Mountains in southern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region is traditionally seen as the production site of the highest-grade jade in China.
A few kilometers outside the city of Hotan, the Yulong Kashi River (also known as White Jade River) has been carrying a huge amount of pebbles down the snowy mountains for thousands of years.
The jade diggers, many of whom are local people, gather near the Yulong Kashi Bridge. Over the years, they have left many pits several meters deep along the riverbed. Tourists can also climb down to try their luck.
An expert can walk on the pebbles bare-footed, and feel a real piece of jade out of the pile. Another ingenious way is to throw pebbles and sand into the air, and experts can see any gleaming jade in this rainfall of stones.
Locals believe jade is formed when stones absorb the moonlight. So they trawl the riverbed on a moonlit night, hoping to catch some luminous jade.
Another place to experience the jade culture is Tengchong in southern Yunnan province. Better known for geothermal springs and the Lisu minority, the small city has actually grown into the biggest processing and trade center of jadeite in Southeast Asia.
While you can find some craftsmen processing jadeite at the huge jadeite market, to get a taste of the local culture, visit the Hehua (Lotus Flower) Township near the city.
Du Maosheng, chairman of the Tengchong Jewelry and Jade Association, says that the Yusan and Hehuachi villages are both known for their processing of jadeite.
At the Lotus Flower Jadeite Center, several old craftsmen still polish the raw pieces with grinding stones. But it usually takes two days for a rock to be cut, carved and polished into a refined piece.