James is bookish, bespectacled, educated in Kunming and Chiang Mai, a walking encyclopedia of Chinese history and culture.
He’s thirty, with a three-year-old son, yet old enough to remember the days when: “All I wanted when I grew up was to be rich enough to eat meat once a month…”
For us, children of the currently wealthy West, Christmas looms, and with it a return to the UK for the first time in two years, before we embark on the next stage of our adventure – a slice of Western Europe, a stay in Spain and then…
Well, we’re still debating, but slowly back to China by way of the trans-Siberian is one plan…
But for the moment we’re in the here and now, which is on our way back from Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the stunning town of Lijiang. And thinking, naturally, of presents.
We pass a sign to the Jade Village, whose sibling is advertised 24/7 on the lift TVs in Kunming, I figure we should take a look at some jade.
I express this sentiment to James.
Sat in the front seat, he pulls out an envelope from his satchel and begins to scribble on it. “Jade is very important in Chinese culture,” he says. “Let me show you.”
“This is the character for ‘jade’,” he says. “Take away the dash and it means ‘king’.” He draws a box around the character. “Put a city wall around it and it means ‘country’.” He draws the character again, with a curve over the top. “Put a house roof over it and it means ‘precious things’.”
On the one hand, this is a wonderful insight into the beauty of written Chinese.
On the other? A brutally hard slog has brought the two of us to an effective pidgin level in speaking and listening.
But getting anywhere close to literacy, i.e. mastering a few hundred of the 3000 most common Chinese characters, is going to be tough.
As regards the 5000-8000 known by well-educated Chinese, or the 40,000 plus used largely by artists and academics…
Well, let’s just not go there.
“Do you know about jade?” I ask.
James wears a splendid, translucent charm around his neck, but I know so little about jade that I’d never registered it as jade.
“Yes!” he says. “My father is a jade carver. He’s very talented. I grew up with jade my whole life.”
“So you can explain to us which sorts of jade are good?” (I’m an anorak when it comes to this sort of thing – I think I get it from my mother.)
“Yes,” he says. “I’ll take you to a good shop. A lot of the shops sell fakes. Lijiang is a good place to buy. Yunnan has the best jade in China, much cheaper than in Hong Kong.”
As we cruise back towards flower-strewn Lijiang Old Town, James pours out a childhood’s worth of expertise.
His pendant cost him 2000 yuan, or north of 300 dollars. But, as they say, it’s not the size that counts. You can buy bigger pieces of real jade for much less, and smaller pieces of real jade for many times more. It’s about the stone.
And, outside the store, not far from the old waterwheel, there are serried ranks of stones in the raw. Each pebble has its weight and other notations scrawled in magic marker on the outer sediment, a tiny window scraped into the casing for the buyer to explore.
A diamond dealer’s light and magnifying glass allow prospective buyers to take their pick. Z shines the light on a rock that takes his fancy.
“You need to be lucky,” says James. “You can’t really tell. Sometimes, you can buy a stone for 20,000 yuan and it is worth 2 million yuan. Other times, the jade is worth almost nothing.”
The Chinese, though, like to gamble…
Inside, the choice is dizzying. There are elaborate, large-scale lion and dragon carvings, abstract display pieces like melted wax or ethereal stalagmites, simple jade bangles, laughing Buddha pendants, astrological year pendants, pendants of purplish, translucent jade…
It’s a mecca of jade and jadeite in colours running from opalescent lilac through translucent white to a vibrant green marbled in dark piney-black, and more rocks, more precious than the ones outside the store.
James carefully points out the value of certain pieces, the translucency, the consistency of colour, the absence of flaws, specific patterns of marbling. Only once you’ve established that the stone is good do you go on to look at the carving.
And, he makes clear to me, for a lower budget buy, it’s the translucence that matters the most.
What seems odd to my eyes, Western eyes that value individuality over tradition, independence over conformity, is that most of the carvings follow almost identical designs, regardless of price point.
A laughing Buddha that retails at 100 yuan – a tenner – does not look, to me, so vastly different from this rather more expensive version.
How much more expensive?
Well, 7,920,000 yuan more expensive. That’s around £800,000, or well over a million dollars.
But then, I guess, one could say the same about chainstore diamanté versus the Kohinoor….
“Mum!” Z yells from the back of the store, three rooms deep in this old shophouse. “Mum! I think Granny would like these.”
James and I arrive. “I think she would too,” I say, admiring a pair of deeply marbled rich jade earrings, their silverwork studded with tiny diamonds. “Unfortunately, we can’t afford them.”
“Yes we can!” he says. “They’re 65 yuan!”
James represses a smile. “That’s 65 THOUSAND yuan,” I say.
“How much is that in pounds?” Z asks, hopefully.
Now, he knows the exchange rate perfectly well – at almost exactly ten to the pound it’s hard not to, and he’s no slouch at currency conversion – but his poor little brain is struggling to understand that ANYTHING could be that expensive.
More to the point, I guess, he’s hoping against hope that all of a sudden the renmimbi will transform into Vietnam dong or Indonesian rupiah and he’ll be able to get his granny the perfect present.
“Roughly £6500,” I say.
His face falls a little. We gawp at them some more.
Z gravitates – my son has TASTE — to a wonderfully carved bracelet of rich, flawless winter green. It’s the sort of thing I imagine the Empress Dowager Cixi taking to her coffin, buried below more than her bodyweight in pearls.
“Look!” he says. “We can afford this. And it’s beautiful. Granny would love it. It’s only 260!”
“It is beautiful,” I say. “Very beautiful. But that character means ‘ten thousand’.”
“Two million, six hundred thousand yuan,” amplifies James, helpfully. “About four hundred thousand dollars.”
Poor Z. My little aesthete’s face falls again.
I steer him back to the budget end of the store.
There are, to our untutored eyes, some beautiful simple bracelets of very pretty jade, well within our price range. Yet, however much I crunch the bones of my hand together, the one I try won’t even pass my knuckles.
“You need oil,” says the salesgirl.
I need, I fear, to have been born Chinese… And my mother’s hands are the size of mine.
We gravitate to a counter where Z decides on what he will buy his grandmother for Christmas – details redacted, for obvious reasons. James does his best to steer us in the right, that is to say, Chinese direction.
“This is very good quality,” he says, picking up a translucent, delicately pale item, which looks, to me, nothing at all like jade.
The shop assistants stand by patiently as Z pores, carefully, over the six items from which we have to choose.
He makes his pick. James cringes, invisibly and ineffably.
“I know that one’s the best,” I say, apologetically. “I did listen to you. But in the West we look at jade differently. It just doesn’t look like good stone to us.”
Poor James. But it would take a long, long time in China to get a Chinese eye for jade, a stone once reserved for emperors alone.
“I think Granny will really like this,” says Z, with confidence.
Our thanks to China Odyssey Tours for hosting us in Lijiang — and to James, our excellent guide.