A small group is gathered around a white-robed table, focusing intently on palm-sized jade sculptures laid out on a black velvet tray. The pieces — flat rings, a winged cylinder, a handled cup — are picked up, passed around, and scrutinised through jewellers’ loupes. Some are 5,000 years old. Others are far more recent. There is a game going on, as those gathered try to determine which pieces of jade are authentic – and which are fake. Not many of the viewers pass the test. There is good-natured giggling whenever someone offers an incorrect answer – including at least one renowned jade collector.

The setting is a panelled room in the Hong Kong Club, hangout for Hong Kong’s two percenters. Members of the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong regularly gather here for lectures by specialists in East Asian art, paintings, bronzes and, above all, porcelain. This jade workshop is being led by Oriental Ceramic Society board member and collector Renee Chiang. It’s different from most events in that participants are encouraged to hold, touch and fondle the jade, and in the way it challenges the knowledge of its participants.

The jade under scrutiny is not the apple-green jadeite prominently displayed in the windows of every Hong Kong jewellery store, which first became popular in China during the 18th century invasions of Myanmar, one of the major repositories of jadeite, by the Qianlong emperor, who ruled from 1711 to 1799. Antiquarian collectors favour a different type of jade, nephrite, which is mined from sources in China, including Xinjiang, where the Kingdom of Yutian, or Khotan, supplied jade to Chinese courts beginning from at least the Tang dynasty (618-907). Yutian was annexed in 1760, opening a huge supply of jade from mines as well as river pebbles, and is still a major source of jade today.

The colours of nephrite are muted, ranging from creamy white to mossy green. Until that 18th century invasion, most of the objects were shaped from boulders and pebbles that washed down from jade seams in the Kunlun Mountains into what is now the oasis town of Hetian. Jade mined from seams was valued less than pebbles, their surfaces worn smooth and skin stained from their journey, which the artisans of jade would work into their designs. Until the region came fully under Chinese control in the 18th century, nearly all the objects were palm-sized, intended to be held or displayed on a scholar’s desk, or, in the earliest historical period, draped over aristocratic corpses as part of a Taoist belief in the powers of jade to prevent the physical body from corruption.

Small or large, jade is a window into the soul of Chinese civilisation. It’s the material that Confucius described as the emblem of junzi – the righteous man. “Anciently superior men found the likeness of all excellent qualities in jade,” Confucius wrote 2,600 years ago in a famous passage in the Book of Rites. Whether in Ai Wei Wei’s jade handcuffs from his 2015 retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, or to the enthusiasts gathered at the Hong Kong Club on a cold fall evening, jade is a symbol of China more than any other art form, a measure of the dignity of its ancient civilisation and the qualities it valued: benevolence, intelligence, righteousness, propriety, musicality, good faith, the brilliance of heaven, virtue, and the path of truth and duty – values attributed to Confucius himself.

Collecting jade “the hard way”

“Ancient jades and bronze are the two most sophisticated things you can collect,” says Chiang, a petite Taiwanese-American. Jades are tougher to analyse than archaic bronzes, which can be materials tested to sort out dates, if not provenance or the original settings of the pieces. By contrast, there is no scientific way to date a jade carving. In fact, there is no easy way to choose the right piece of jade other than what Chiang calls the “hard way.” Even reliable dealers and world-renowned museums make mistakes. “You have to become an expert yourself,” she says. Unlike many other types of collecting, collectors of ancient jade are forced to great lengths to reassure themselves that their purchases are genuine and not the product of factories with increasingly sophisticated means of making reproductions, or fakes.

Neolithic jue from 6200-5400 BC, the pre-bronze era. Photo courtesy of Renee Chiang and Bao Pu.

The jades in Chiang’s own Numina collection — a joint project with her husband Bao Pu — are subtle, with forms and colours that would not be high on the list of a Hong Kong socialite looking for personal adornment. They have focused on the earliest period of Chinese civilisation, including the pre-bronze era that some experts call “the age of jade.” There is a jue, from the Neolithic Xinglongwa culture in Inner Mongolia (6200-5400 BC), one of the earliest to craft jade into forms whose use can only be speculated at. Purchased from a Hong Kong dealer, it may have been worn as an earring, through an enlarged hole in an enlarged earlobe. There is an entire book devoted to this earliest era of jade carving, The Origin of Jades in East Asia: Jades of the Xinglongwa Culture, written by Chinese University of Hong Kong researchers Yang Hu, Liu Guoxiang and Tang Chung.

Dragon Bi from the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Photo courtesy of Renee Chiang and Bao Pu.

Equally rare, their family collection includes a spectacular dragon bi from the Warring States period (475-221 BC), a time that marked the height of Chinese jade culture in terms of execution and artistry. Their bi, purchased from a Hong Kong dealer, was originally part of a pendant set draped over the body of an aristocratic individual and found commonly in tombs from the Western Zhou to Han dynasties (1046 BC to 220 AD).

Bao and Chiang see their jades as pathways into the heart of the enigmatic early culture of China, a culture that so clearly prized jade and promoted its craft despite the hardness and difficulty of the material. Jade stones are abraded, not carved, because of their hardness, a technique that takes a lifetime to master. “Once that life is gone, it’s gone,” says Bao. “Through the material evidence you can recapture the context in which the item was used. It’s a link. Our values were very different when we began. The more we study, the more we understand.”

A journey that began with Tiananmen  

Chiang and Bao met in in Beijing in the 1980s. Chiang, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and a Yale graduate, was teaching English and exploring her heritage. Bao was connected to the highest echelons of Chinese government; his father Bao Tong worked first for Deng Xiaoping and then as personal secretary to Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the time. When students began campaigning for democracy in May and June 1989, both Zhao and Bao senior challenged the draconian plans to clear student protesters from Tiananmen Square. They were swiftly purged from their positions and the military was sent into Beijing to remove the protesters. Several hundred civilians were killed.

After Bao’s father was arrested, he and Chiang left for the United States, where Bao continued his studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. They married in 1993, moving to Hong Kong in 2000 to pursue their political mission and to be closer to Bao’s parents, who remain under house arrest in Beijing. In 2005, the couple set up what has become the most famous Chinese-language publishing house outside of China: New Century Press, which publishes substantial, politically risky titles, notably the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, whose English version was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009 as Prisoner of the State.

The couple’s journey in jade has been equally principled and tenacious. In 2002, Chiang was chatting with her endocrinologist, who showed her a collection of jade purportedly from the Neolithic Hongshan culture, which he kept in his office. He gave her an address of his dealer in Kowloon, and, fascinated, she bought a few pieces, not realising that they were fake. “We had to learn to train our eyes over time,” she says. “This is easily the hardest sculptural material ever found by man, too hard to carve with any metal tool,” adds Bao. “It is also the least understood. The means of processing and the beauty are both lost. Even modern Chinese don’t understand it.”

Shang Bird with Crown. Shang Dynasty (1766-1046 BC). Photo courtesy of Renee Chiang and Bao Pu.

Working as left-wing publishers has not made Bao and Chiang rich. Their collecting has been cautious and exacting, reflecting their limited resources. They go to great lengths to establish the authenticity of each item they add to their collection. Their Shang bird — a common icon in early Chinese jade cultures, which believed that humans originated from birds — was bought at a Christie’s sale in New York, from the collection of Arthur Sackler, an American philanthropist who endowed the Freer Sackler museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Since only one fully intact Shang tomb has been found with a hoard of jades, Bao and Chiang have done exhaustive research in sources including two multi-volume sets of jades found in new archaeological digs, published in China in 1991 and 2007, as well as an annual publication of new archaeological finds published by the Cultural Relics Press.

Authenticity wasn’t always such an issue. The mid-1990s marked the high point of a period of jade collecting when Hong Kong was a major waystation for jades excavated from tombs in the 1970s and 1980s. That was a time when the quality of jade available on the market was high, prices low, and competition modest from the point of view of collectors, who pursued jade more as passion than investment. People remember that period with nostalgia. Starting at the turn of the millennium, mainland Chinese dealers and collectors became a force in the market, resulting in new competition for all genres of Chinese art, from contemporary painting to Imperial seals.

Unwilling to rely on dealers after their initial bad experience, and without enough cash to spend carelessly, Chiang and Bao developed their own set of rules. Rule number one is to study and compare each potential acquisition as carefully as possible with jades with known provenance. “Any reproduction will differ from the original in some way, no matter how small the differences,” says Chiang. “Our mission is to find the differences.” Rule number two – forget everything you think you know. “No one single principle can guarantee certainty in any every piece,” she adds. They continue collecting, but at a much slower pace than before, due to the extraordinary increase in market prices of all categories of jade, from Neolithic to Imperial.

And it has become more important than ever to guard against fakes. The more energetic the market, the more the fake factories crank up. “Today, we think we have the best tools and knowledge and we think we can do anything, but in many ways, this is not true,” says Chiang. “What’s been lost is more than the skills. Today’s jade carvers look at jade as no different than any other carving. When I see a fake jade made with a diamond bit drill, I’m offended, when you realise how much more care was expended a thousand years ago, and how much it meant to them, when it took your entire life to become a master carver.”

Why Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is not the only place where jade is sold or prized by collectors, but it may be the best, That’s because of Hong Kong’s separate administrative status from the mainland. China maintains export restrictions on antiquities over 100 years old, while Hong Kong does not. A black market flourished from the 1970s to the 1990s as antiquities were smuggled through Hong Kong to the rest of the world.

Since then, domestic demand has stopped the flow. The big three auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, will not deal in items acquired after 2000, and insist on a strict paper trail to ensure they were not acquired during a period when Chinese authorities turned a blind eye to the outflow, but they are still able to trade freely in ancient jade. Collectors do not face the same risks they might in mainland China or even the United States, which has import restrictions on Chinese antiquities earlier than the end of the Tang dynasty in 907 AD.

In Hong Kong, the passion for ancient jade has been a great equaliser. Some of the greatest jade collections in the world have been formed here by architects, judges, corporate lawyers, accountants, bankers and securities regulators. Some take their jades to bed with them. Others keep them in their pockets and pull them out to show like-minded friends. Hong Kong collectors reflect the city’s cosmopolitan DNA; their origins span the globe. Hong Kong has attracted the scions of legendary China Coast families, like Sir Joseph E. Hotung, whose jade collection is on loan to the British Museum. And it continues to exert an appeal to relative newcomers like Chiang and Bao, who never expected to find Hong Kong an ideal place to explore China’s oldest art form, but have stayed because it is.