With a history and culture that stretches as far back as any on Earth, the lore of ancient China is broad and deep. Like many other civilizations, they had a healthy obsession with gemstones. Precious stones were used in carvings and became subjects of folklore and more in many aspects of Chinese history. Today, we’re going to take a look at some of our favorite treasures from Imperial China.
Pearl In Ancient China
The Han Dynasty was known as a golden age in Chinese history, a lengthy period of prosperity. The Silk Road also opened up, allowing trade with the West and creating an exchange of goods, cultures, and gemstones.
The gemstone we’re going to focus on today is the humble pearl.
In ancient China, most pearls would have been farmed in freshwater lakes and streams, just as they are today, instead of being cultured. However, these pearls were all-natural, created by an irritant inside the shell of a mollusk, which, in turn, coated it with nacre.
Did the citizens of the Han Dynasty know this? Probably not. But they did know that while foraging for food, they found beautifully colored, lustrous, shiny, round gems. Soon enough, everybody wanted one.
Nangyue King And The Pearl
For example, a Nanyue king of the Western Han Dynasty slept covered in pearls. He had both pearl-embroidered bedding and a pillow stuffed with pearls. Pearls are soft as far as gems go, but not like that, dude! My neck is sore just thinking about it. And as if that wasn’t enough, he was buried with over a hundred pearls stuffed in his mouth—the world’s most expensive game of chubby bunny.
The Pearl Of The Marquis Of Sui
The most famous pearl in Chinese folklore is the Pearl of the Marquis of Sui. According to legend, a ruler of a Sui state was given a luminous pearl by a snake whose life he saved. This pearl eventually became a metaphor in Chinese literature for underestimating the value of a person or a thing.
Legends of animals giving precious gems to humans exist worldwide, but this story, in particular, is believed to be the oldest known example of the grateful animal archetype, which is pretty cool.
Mr. He’s Jade Disc
This legendary pearl is often mentioned historically in conjunction with one of the most famous jade artifacts in history, Mr. He’s Jade Disc.
Like any centuries-old story, there are different versions, but it goes like this: Mr. He finds a rough piece of jade, takes it to a king who deems it worthless, and has Mr. He’s foot cut off. He tries again with the next king, and once again, he is turned away and has his other foot amputated for lying to the king. He then weeps until he starts crying blood, and the king says, “Dude, lots of people have had their feet amputated. Why are you whining about it?” To which Mr. He replies, “It’s not because walking just got more complicated. It’s because my precious stone was called worthless, and I was called a liar.” So the king has the jade polished and carved into a disc with a hole in the center, and its true beauty is finally revealed.
He doesn’t get his feet back, though. Though the earliest history of the disc is a bit uncertain, it does appear to have existed. It became a contentious precious artifact and was traded and stolen for hundreds of years until it was supposedly carved into the heirloom seal of the realm.
The seal was passed on from dynasty to dynasty, symbolizing a mandate from heaven, a concept to justify the rule of the current king or emperor.
This went on for a few hundred more years until it disappeared from records. For several hundred more years, who misplaced it or when it went missing is unknown.
But by the Ming Dynasty, around the late 1300s, it was confirmed lost. Who knows when or even if this ancient jade disc will resurface, but I hope I’m around to see it.
Chinese Han Purple
Before we finish, we want to share one last mind-blowing scientific discovery made courtesy of ancient China, specifically the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. It marked the beginning of the Chinese Empire.
During this period, the unification of state walls into a single Great Wall occurred, and it was also the era of the great Terracotta Army.
When it was unearthed in 1974, the oxygen exposure and centuries of time caused the soldiers’ original colors of red, green, black, and white to fade dramatically.
However, one color remained more vivid than the rest: purple.
Curious as to why, samples of this pigment, now known as Han or Chinese purple, were experimented on and exposed to temperatures near absolute zero, and something extraordinary happened.
This barium copper silicate lost an entire dimension, going from three down to two-dimensional planes. A three-dimensional material was occurring in just two dimensions, something never before observed.
Unfortunately, the recipe for this pigment was never recorded, but scientists do know that you need a barium mineral, quartz, copper mineral, and lead salt. What’s tricky is finding the proper ratios, temperatures, and other factors to get the famous Han purple.
Studying this lower-dimensional phenomenon could lead to faster computers, lower electricity bills (nice!), and more efficient data transfer, meaning we can watch Netflix on 11 different computers at once.
Let those Terracotta soldiers serve as a reminder never to underestimate the wisdom of the ancients.
Conclusion On Gemstones of Imperial China
That’s all we have for today, guys. If you would try to get your gemstone appraised a second time after your foot was cut off the first time. Also, would you rather find the jade seal or the legendary pearl?