No stone unturned
From daybreak until sunset, the banks of the Jade Dragon Kashgar River in Hotan are lined with people looking to get rich. Young and old, male and female, they scour the river, turning over stone after stone in search of the creamy white jade that is washed down from the Kunlun Mountains and is more precious than gold.
Hotan, which is known to the Han Chinese as Hetian, has been associated with jade for thousands of years. Jade artefacts from as far back as 5,000BC have been found in and around this former Silk Road trading hub in the far south of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. But in recent years, the desire for Hotan jade among the mainland's newly rich has sparked an unprecedented jade rush that has resulted in prices rising at a phenomenal rate. The finest Hotan jade, known as 'mutton fat jade' for its white marbled quality, now sells for US$3,000 an ounce, more than double the price of gold.
'You can be lucky and make your fortune in a day, or you can spend 10 years by the river without finding anything,' says Mohammed Ali, who has been selling Hotan jade for seven years. Standing in front of a metal tray of stones submerged in water at the Jade Market that lines one side of the Jade Dragon Kashgar River, Ali is one of the many locals who have abandoned working on the land in the hope of cashing in on the demand for jade.
But while a few of the former farmers strike it lucky, Hotan's jade trade has mostly benefited the Han Chinese, who make up less than 10 per cent of the city's population. As such, the jade rush has come to symbolise the differing economic fortunes of the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uygur minority and the Han migrants who have flooded into the restive region in recent decades.
Like most of the people panning the river for jade and working at the market, Ali is a Uygur. 'My friends find the jade and I buy it from them. Then I sell it on for 20 per cent more,' he says. His customers are overwhelmingly Han. 'They know Hotan jade is the best and they come from all over China, from as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. They can make far more money than me because they know how to make it into jewellery,' Ali says.
While the jade stones found in the river are valuable in themselves, it is when they are fashioned into the accessories that are a status symbol in the mainland's booming eastern cities that the real money is made.
Jade jewellery shop owner Guo Fengliang has come from Shijiazhuang in far-off Hebei province in search of raw material. Clutching a satchel full of bundles of 100 yuan notes, he shows off a fist-sized lump of jade he bought for 20,000 yuan (HK$23,000). 'We'll carve it into bracelets, earrings and pendants. I should make 100,000 yuan from this piece of jade, so business is good,' Guo says.
At the Hetian Arts & Crafts Jade Carving Factory, a few Uygurs sit alongside Han at lathes as they shave and shape jade into jewellery and figurines, a rare sight in Xinjiang, where Han and Uygurs mostly lead separate lives. But the factory is Han-owned, just like almost every jade jewellery shop in Hotan. 'Most Uygurs don't know how to cut the jade, and most don't have the business experience to sell it,' says Zhang Xiankuo, the factory's sales manager and a migrant from Sichuan province.
The economic gap between the Uygurs and the Han was identified by Beijing as the main reason for the riots that erupted in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi last year and which left almost 200 people, mostly Han, dead. Yet the Han control of the jade trade also reflects the cultural divide between them and the Uygurs. Few Uygurs are interested in wearing jade as jewellery; instead, like their Central Asian neighbours, it is gold or silver that excites them.
To the Han, however, jade has a mystical resonance that makes it more desirable than any other precious stone. 'It's a tradition that goes back to imperial times. Jade symbolises status and wealth and power,' says Terry Chu, the deputy head of the jewellery department at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Confucius used jade as a metaphor to describe the character of the most honest and upstanding of men, while generations of Chinese women were told to remain as pure as jade. In Taoist and Buddhist thought, jade has the power both to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the wearer, which is the reason why jade is given as gifts for babies.
Of all jade, it is the unique mutton fat jade, or yangzhiyu, from Hotan that is most prized. 'The best jade should be white, because that means it's pure and perfect. Mutton fat jade is white, it's bright and it's smooth as skin,' says Professor He Mingyue, a jade expert at the China University of Geosciences in Beijing. 'Hetian jade also doesn't break easily. It's hard, yet it's malleable and, of course, it is difficult to find, which only increases its allure.'
Its scarcity is the reason prices have soared in recent years. 'Ten years ago, a small pendant made of mutton fat jade would have cost about 2,000 yuan. Now, it's at least 20,000 yuan,' Zhang says. 'It's not just the limited amount of the jade that has caused prices to rise. It's that people see it as an investment, so when they own a piece of high-quality jade they don't want to sell it, which means very little good second-hand jade comes on the market.'
Now, there are signs that the supply of prime Hotan jade is drying up. Although the local government has banned the use of bulldozers and other machinery to dig for jade, the damage done to the Jade Dragon Kashgar River by the jade hunters is obvious. The dredging and diverting of the river has reduced it to a trickle that can be walked across without getting your feet wet. Ten years ago, the river gushed down from the mountains in torrents, bringing with it jade stones.
'I think there won't be any Hotan jade left in five to 10 years,' says Chen Jianxin, a Hotan jade shopkeeper. 'The best jade comes from a 13-14 kilometre stretch of the river and people have been exploring there for 7,000 years. It's intensified since 2003, so there's very little high-quality jade left. A lot of people have lost money searching for jade in recent years, especially those who hired machines before they were banned.'
That shortage has resulted in a thriving industry in counterfeit Hotan jade, with rocks being treated with chemicals to whiten them so they look like mutton fat jade. 'There's a lot of poor-quality jade being passed off as the good stuff. I'd say that about 80 per cent of the jade in the market isn't mountain stone, but river stone,' Chen says. It's for that reason that most of the customers in the market are people in the jade trade.
'We don't get many tourists because most are scared of buying fake jade,' says Dang Hongxia, who opened her jade shop four years ago after relocating from Shaanxi.
If Hotan's 8,000 years of being known for its jade is coming to an end, then in the short term the lack of high-quality stones seems certain to ensure that Hotan's jade rush will continue. 'I don't think we've reached a peak yet. I think the prices will keep on going up,' Chen says. 'With the economy doing so well, more and more people are buying jade. Everybody wants one perfect piece of jade for themselves.'