HOTAN, China Prospectors line the banks of the Yulong Kashgar River
here, overturning boulders, boring into banks and panning pebbles in
a scene out of the California Gold Rush.
The object of their desire on this arid outpost in far western China
is not gold, however, but jade, which holds a near-mystical grip on
one of the world's oldest civilizations.
"Gold is valuable," says a Chinese proverb. "Jade is invaluable."
And these treasure hunters aren't looking for just any jade. Over
the centuries, Hotan has gained a reputation for producing some of
the highest-quality stones in China.
But as growing numbers of searchers comb this washed-out riverbed
and surrounding mountains, some experts worry that China is losing a
piece of its soul. The priceless treasure, they fret, is rapidly
falling prey to the greed, corruption and environmental degradation
that tears at so many corners of Chinese life.
The problem isn't so much the small-time freelancers such as
Umerjan, 33, who said he had worked his homemade pick and sieve here
every day for the last two years without a major find.
"I really want to hit that lucky strike," said Umerjan, who gave
only his first name. "So far it's nothing but small pieces."
It's more the heavy-equipment users who carve scars in the earth,
upsetting nature's balance and threatening to deplete a resource that
has brought joy to generations. Authorities implemented new rules
this year, revoking all outstanding licenses and making commercial
excavation along the river illegal.
But bulldozers and other excavators continue to work early in the
morning or late in the evening, residents say, without much
interference from local officials. Fresh tracks of heavy equipment
are visible in the wet sand.
"Hotan jade isn't like coal or oil it's a very special resource
that's been with us for thousands of years," said Wang Shiqi, a
geology professor and jade specialist at Peking University. "If we
continue unlimited exploitation, we're in danger of irreparably
damaging Chinese culture."
According to state-run media, more than 80% of Hotan's jade has been
exploited, with some reports suggesting it may be gone in three to
five years. As many as 20,000 people and 2,000 pieces of heavy
equipment are said to be working the area, leaving gashes in the
ground as deep as 30 feet.
The hold these rocks have on the Chinese psyche in their various
shades of red, green, white, gray, topaz and black is deep and dates
to prehistoric times. Hotan jade is famous for its size and its white
sheen; the latter is dubbed "sheep fat," a reflection of the
mutton-obsessed culture in this part of the country.
One Hotan piece, a sort of Hope diamond of the jade world, weighs in
at 11,795 pounds and is carved to depict an ancient emperor leading
flood-control efforts. It resides in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Archeologists have found jade items dating back 5,000 years, and
written reference to Hotan's treasures go back at least 2,000. Some
sources say the Jade Road has a far longer history than its more
famous cousin, the Silk Road, with Hotan a crossroads for traders
linking Mediterranean buyers with eastern Chinese sellers.
Generations of Chinese emperors received Hotan treasures as
tributes, bolstering its reputation as one of the embodiments of
Chinese culture and civilization, along with calligraphy, painting,
porcelain making and China's other great arts.
For many people, however, the mineral goes beyond mere collectible
or art object, taking on near-human qualities. Confucius identified
11 jade virtues as a model for human behavior, and its famed purity
is a metaphor for female virginity. "Remain as pure as jade,"
generations of Chinese mothers have cautioned their daughters.
As newfound wealth has transformed Chinese society in recent
decades, imperial collectors have been supplanted by a new group of
elite. At a high-end shop in Kashgar, jade dealer Ye Sanfei said
demand is often driven by government officials, especially those from
Beijing, along with a growing number of nouveau riche entrepreneurs.
In an economy well lubricated by bribery, officials often prefer to
receive presents instead of cash, experts say, and what better way to
shower influence on gatekeepers than with a timeless gift of jade?
Hotan jade, which can sell for up to $120 a gram, accounts for 10%
of the $1.2-billion annual jade trade, according to the China
Precious Stone Assn., a trade group.
The wares lining Ye's shop range from small pendants selling for
well under $100 to a carved boulder priced at $35,000. As with most
things in China, however, bargaining is expected.
The high prices are the stuff of dreams for the poorly dressed
diggers working along the Yulong Kashgar, or Jade Dragon, River. Many
console themselves with stories of friends of friends who found
pieces the size of fists, basketballs, watermelons.
"It's more about luck than skill," said Musajan, 47, an ethnic
Uighur who uses one name, as he unwrapped a plastic bag containing
several pieces of white, green and brown jade worth a few cents each.
The methods of these dreamers vary widely. One family of four armed
with shovels and picks dug horizontally into the riverbank,
supervised by a fifth family member kibitzing from beneath a parasol.
Farther along, several solo figures dug pits with their bare hands,
with little apparent urgency.
Farther upstream, another team repaired a diesel engine it was using
to pump a gush of river water at the ground in hopes of unearthing
"We small people trying our luck don't really hurt the land," said
Han Ping, 63, partially submerged in a hole dug by hand. "But the big
machines, which are often gone by the time I arrive in the morning,
hurt the environment and even flood the village."
Behind the increasingly frenetic search are the skyrocketing prices
of the last decade, with reports of twentyfold leaps within a few
years. A carved white jade cup from the 18th century, scheduled for
auction by Christie's in Hong Kong in November, is expected to fetch
$1.3 million to $1.9 million.
Dealers complain that the growing demand has also inspired a trade
in more sophisticated counterfeits. But then, jade's history and high
value have meant a centuries-long association with theft, deceit,
avarice, questionable claims and ne'er-do-wells.
Imperial tomb robbers have long targeted jade talismans, believed by
some dynasties to ward off decomposition and ease passage to the
afterlife. At times in China's history, the mineral has played a
prominent role in witchcraft and traditional medicine.
"Jade is a cure for whatever medical problem befalls you," reads a
sign in the Zhongjian Hotan Jade shop in Kashgar, a claim that
customer Liu Xiaohu, 34, a supermarket owner, finds perfectly
"I believe it will cure everything," he said. "I've heard when jade
touches your skin, it sucks out the poisons."
Jade even has a role in protecting copyrights. "Anyone who
duplicates this article without permission will be punished by the
Jade God," according to an article on the Internet.
Along the banks of the Yulong Kashgar, the Jade God didn't seem to
be blessing many treasure seekers on a recent afternoon. But some
took it in stride.
"Sure, I'd like to find a big strike," the barefoot Han said as she
showed a few of the small stones she had unearthed in recent days.
"But it's also just a nice way to enjoy the scenery. I just keep
trying my luck."