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Jade Dreams
◆Text by Wang ShengzhiPhotographs by Yang Jiankun

The mine cave is so narrow that miners must creep on the ground, and oxygen levels are low.

A unique jade ore produced in the Kunlun Mountains, featuring green-and-white luster.

Dozens of jade miners attempt to move a huge rock.

Jade miners live in a sparse shed. They may find nothing after a year’s prospecting, and some even lose their lives.

Miners waiting for a set explosive. For them, this is a place full of both seduction and uncertainty.

The Golmud Jade Ore Market attracts hundreds of merchants from around China each day.

Few may guess that superb Kunlun jade craftworks come from such a modest workshop.

Artifacts made of Kunlun jade.

Since ancient times, the magnificent Kunlun Mountains in northwestern China has remained a famous cradle of jade. At the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Kunlun jade added Chinese elegance to the Olympic medals. Deep in the mountains many teams of jade miners are at work. This reporter trekked there to record their work with his lens.

Jade ore.

A pendant carved from Kunlun jade. Analysis has revealed that Kunlun jade contains trace elements of selenium, zinc, copper, cobalt and manganese, which is thus helpful for the wearer to maintain health.

The Kunlun Mountains.

Jade ritual artifacts unearthed from at the Lajiacun Ruins in southern Minhe County, Qinghai. Jade carving here dates back to the Neolithic Period.

Early in 1992, Darcy, a farmer from Golmud, Qinghai Province, came across several pieces of green stones near the Fairy Maiden Peak in the Kunlun Mountains. Never before seeing such a stone, he brought one home. It weighed dozens of kilograms. His interest growing, in hopes of finding more stones, he led his son and two of his friends to revisit the peak a couple of days later. When the group reached the top of the peak after three hours of tough trekking, they were shocked by an incredible scene: Countless rough jadeites in light green and white were growing on the ground. A jadeite mine formed billions of years ago was thus revealed.

Stone Legend

Reputed as the Ridge of Asia, the Kunlun Mountains originate at the Pamir Plateau and snake eastwards across the heart of the Asian continent. Ranging in altitude an average of 5,500 meters, the mountain range runs 1,800 kilometers through the Xinjiang Ugyur Autonomous Region and extends more than 1,200 kilometers into Qinghai Province.

For thousands of years, the Kunlun Mountains have remained well known in Chinese folklore and mythology. It is said the Royal Mother of the West is the immortal owner of the mountains, and the Black Sea, the headstream of the Kunlun River, is her abode named Jade Pond. The bamboo slips unearthed from an ancient tomb in Henan Province record such a legend: King Mu of the Zhou Dynasty (C. 11th-256B.C.) rides eight steeds, which can run 10,000 miles a day, to meet the Royal Mother of the West in the Jade Pond. Before his departure for the return trip, the goddess presents him with eight carriages loaded with jade, and makes an appointment with the king to again meet three years later.

The Kunlun Mountains and the Himalayas are located at the junction of two continental plates. Due to ongoing collision between the two plates over billions of years, as well as the crushing force from magmata under the crust, a special sort of stone was formed – Kunlun jadeites.

The history of jade culture in China dates back to the prehistoric period. A large quantity of jade ritual artifacts from the Neolithic Period was discovered at the Lajiacun Ruins in southern Minhe County, Qinghai Province. According to Archeologist Wang Renxiang, unearthed chime stones and jade relics indicate the place was a distribution center for jade wares, rather than just an ordinary primitive village. It was proven that most of these valuable jade relics come from the nearby Kunlun Mountains.

According to traditional Chinese culture, Kunlun jade has the power to repel bad luck. Perhaps this belief is a little superstitious. However, scientific research has revealed that Kunlun jade contains trace elements of selenium, zinc, copper, cobalt and manganese. These elements may be absorbed by the human body if one wears jade jewels for extended periods, thus internal balance is maintained and ailments dispelled.

Mountain Miners

There is a primary jade mine on the top of a peak in the Wild Ox Valley, at an altitude of nearly 5,000 meters on the Kunlun Mountains. This is a place full of both seduction and uncertainty. The jade produced here boasts tender texture and superb quality. In such a nation like China, where jade culture prevails, a piece of high-quality stone is valuable. The stories of many getting rich by exploring jade mines entice more people to come here to seek their dream of wealth.

To reach the jade miners in the Kunlun Mountains, we drove a jeep across the Kunlun River to the mine in the Wild Ox Valley. Upon reaching the excavation pit along a zigzagging path, we were out of breath. Reflected by snow that does not melt all the year round on the lofty mountains and the smooth section plane cut by miners on the mountainside, the sunlight was so intense that we could not fully open our eyes. Against the huge sectional plane hundreds of meters in height, the miners looked like sesame seeds scattered amidst the excavated stone blocks.

Jade mining is a high risk profession. In order to explore their mines, many spend all their assets they have only to be rewarded with nothing, and some even lose their lives in the wilderness. Most miners in the Wild Ox Valley are Hui people from low income villages in Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia.

Mr. Han, head of a jade mining team in the valley, led us into an excavation cave only one meter in diameter and dozens of meters in depth. The cave was so narrow that we had to creep on the ground. I had thought the cave might be illuminated by rough jadeites. However, not a single piece of jadeite ore was found even when we reached the deepest end of the cave. Exiting the cave, I asked Mr. Han where I could take photos of a primary jade ore deposit. He shook his head and said that he had not discovered a noteworthy ore deposit in one year of exploration. He said this while gesturing with his left hand, missing the little finger. He lost that in a mining accident.

I used to think that jade mining must be as easy as excavating marble. In fact, jade ores are not polymerized together, but are separately hidden in the rock. To get each piece of jade ore, miners must carefully remove the surrounding mass. It is an arduous, painstaking task, and any carelessness may shatter the jade inside. Moreover, miners are required to have the capacity to distinguish the jade ore from ordinary rock.

It is hard to grasp the difficulty and hardship behind the acquisition of a beautiful piece of jade, unless you personally watch how these miners work in such an arduous environment, and how they struggle with uncertain hope. Mr. Han and his team have worked in the Wild Ox Valley for more than a year, investing 10 million yuan. Several miners lost their lives, and will forever be at rest in the valley. And yet, to date they have discovered no jade ore deposits.

Even so, many others still come to the Wild Ox Valley and the Fairy Maiden Peak in the Kunlun Mountains to seek the stone, with the hope that their dream may be realized. It is these hardworking miners who create the legend behind the renowned Kunlun jade.

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