Jade (Yu in Chinese pinyin) was defined as beautiful stones by Xu Zhen (about 58-147) in Shuo Wen Jie Zi, the first Chinese dictionary. Jade is generally classified into soft jade (nephrite) and hard jade (jadeite). Since China only had the soft jade until jadeite was imported from Burma during the Qing dynasty (1271-1368), jade traditionally refers to the soft jade so it is also called traditional jade. Jadeite is called Feicui in Chinese. Feicui is now more popular and valuable than the soft jade in China.
The history of jade is as long as the Chinese civilization. Archaeologists have found jade objects from the early Neolithic period (about 5000 BC), represented by the Hemudu culture in Zhejian Province, and from the middle and late Neolithic period, represented by the Hongshan culture along the Lao River, the Longshan culture along the Yellow River, and the Liangzhu culture in the Tai Lake region. Jade has been ever more popular till today.
The Chinese love jade because of not only its beauty, but also more importantly its culture, meaning and humanity, as Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC) said there are 11 De (virtue) in jade. The following is the translation (don,t know the translator):
,The wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice; the pure and prolonged sound, which it gives forth when one strikes it, represents music. Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth. Used alone without ornamentation it represents chastity. The price that the entire world attaches to it represents the truth. To support these comparisons, the Book of Verse says: "When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade.",
Thus jade is really special in Chinese culture, also as the Chinese saying goes "Gold has a value; jade is invaluable."
Because jade stands for beauty, grace and purity, it has been used in many Chinese idioms or phrases to denote beautiful things or people, such as Yu Jie Bing Qing (pure and noble), Ting Ting Yu Li (fair, slim and graceful) and Yu Nv (beautiful girl). The Chinese character Yu is often used in Chinese names.
There are Chinese stories about jade. The two most famous stories are He Shi Zhi Bi (Mr. He and His Jade) and Wan Bi Gui Zhao (Jade Returned Intact to Zhao). Bi also means jade. He Shi Zhi Bi is a story about the suffering of Mr. He when he presented his raw jade to the kings again and again. The raw jade was eventually recognized as an invaluable jade and was named after Mr. He by Wenwang, the king of the Chu State (about 689 BC). Wan Bi Gui Zhao is a follow-up story of the famous jade. The king of the Qin State, the most powerful state during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), tempted to exchange the jade from the Zhao State using his 15 cities, but he failed. The jade was returned to the Zhao State safely. Thus jade is not only invaluable, but also the symbol of power in the ancient time. And it is interesting to note that the Supreme Deity of Taoism has the name, Yuhuang Dadi (the Jade Emperor).
Jade was made into sacrificial vessel, tools, ornaments, utensils and many other items. There were ancient music instruments made out of jade, such as jade flute, yuxiao (a vertical jade flute) and jade chime. Jade was also mysterious to the Chinese in the ancient time so jade wares were popular as sacrificial vessels and were often buried with the dead. To preserve the body of the dead, Liu Sheng, the ruler of the Zhongshan State (113 BC) was buried in the jade burial suit composed of 2,498 pieces of jade, sewn together with gold thread.
Jade culture is very rich in China. We have only touched the surface of it. In conclusion, jade symbolizes beauty, nobility, perfection, constancy, power, and immortality in Chinese culture.