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A mother lode of beauty and horror


THE STONE OF HEAVEN: The Secret History of Imperial Green Jade, by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark. Orion, 2002, 352 pp., 8.99 British pounds (paper)

This book is one of a newly emerging genre: history told from the viewpoint of a single item. Other studies have already looked at subjects that ranged from flowers and foodstuffs (the tulip, the potato) to natural and man-made dyes (madder red, mauve). Generally they tell a tale of discovery, improvement and success. By contrast, “The Stone of Heaven,” though it revels in luxury, ends as a journey to the heart of darkness.

Only one important mineral (salt) has been written up previously, so Levy and Scott-Clark’s monograph is probably the first of this popular new kind to take up the story of a precious stone. Jade, however, is one of the most ancient precious materials: Examples of it in the Imperial Palace Museum in Taipei date back thousands of years, and readily attest to its central position in the cultural history of China. The catalog of the museum also reveals that there are different kinds of jade, as well as different qualities and colors.

The type of hard jade, known as jadeite, that this book examines was first imported into China in large quantities in the 18th century. It was a particular obsession of Emperor Qianlong, who was prepared to take his country to war to ensure its uninterrupted supply. The emperor composed poems to the stone, and had them inscribed on tablets of it. He even had older stones recarved, though the type that he preferred was not the softer jade, or nephrite, that had come in the past from central Asia, but jadeite from the mines in northern Burma.

It is to the history of the Burmese kings that the authors then turn, to explore the Lion Throne’s prickly relations with the Dragon Throne of China. After a lapse, King Bodawpaya, Jianlong’s contemporary in Burma, decided to resume payment of tribute to his northern neighbor, and the mountain road connecting the two countries was reopened as a result. It was a dangerous route for travelers, but the Emperor was delighted, since he could now acquire all the jade that he desired.

Just as relations between China and Burma were recovering, however, a new threat appeared from the west, where the British Empire was steadily expanding. The authors have great fun with the earliest diplomatic contacts — the burning issues of whether European emissaries would kowtow to the emperor, or discard their footwear to approach the king. When first reports of a valuable green stone reached the British, a team was sent into the jungle to investigate, facing danger not only from disease, but even more from the fierce tribes who inhabited this terrain.

The account is lively and well paced as it proceeds into the 19th century, when the Dowager Empress Cixi too became an avid collector of green jade. But the demise of the Burmese court, and then of the Qing Dynasty, after the palaces of both countries had been ransacked by invading Western forces, led to the dispersal of important pieces. Both private and public collections of art objects in the West were simultaneously enriched. The authors’ tracking of individual stones is often fascinating, and the book ends with an interesting surprise.

Considerable attention is given to the extravagant lives of the rich and famous in the modern era — from the Soong family in China to the Woolworths heiress Barbara Hutton — and many of the episodes described are highly entertaining, though much of this material has been written up before. The decadence of Shanghai in the 1930s, for instance, will be familiar ground to many readers, though other matters, like the opening of the Burma Road to form a link with China in World War II, acquire a new significance in the context of this story.

There are many curious sidelights, such as the way that the jungle setting of the Burmese mines appears to feature in one of the tales of Sindbad the Sailor in “The Arabian Nights.” It is intriguing to learn that the impoverished last emperor of China, strapped for cash, sent a shipment of jade to Japan following a major earthquake (presumably in 1923). But the most important story that the authors have to tell concerns contemporary Myanmar.

It is notable that Levy and Scott-Clark never refer to the country by its present name, even though they acknowledge the existence of that name. Not surprisingly, they have little good to say about the military government, which has harried and obstructed them in the course of their investigations. The question that they have been trying to clarify is the condition of the mines today. Their interest was piqued by dark rumors about what was going on there that began to filter across the border into Thailand in the 1990s.

The rumors concerned not only work conditions resembling forced labor or even slavery, but extensive drug abuse and prostitution, leading to the rapid spread of HIV, and producing, in the words of one reporter, “a disaster of almost biblical proportions.” The authors speculate, on the basis of their investigations, that infection among mine workers of both sexes may run close to 100 percent and involve a community of perhaps 1 million people. This is deeply disturbing, not least because the mines are government-run, and one of the country’s few cash-producing assets.

The cloak-and-dagger adventures that the writers undertook to obtain a close look at the mines certainly make a thrilling read, with secret meetings and the ever-present danger of betrayal. Their greatest triumph is to reach the mines themselves at Hpakant, having bribed and deceived the military to get there. And when they do reach them, what they find and photograph is certainly appalling. On the final pages, there is an even grimmer postscript to this on the border inside China.

Disturbing as these revelations are, one cannot help wishing that the telling was a bit less highly colored. THe book is written in an energetic journalistic manner, in which even emperors invariably “rush” and “rage,” and the style of this becomes a little wearing over so many pages. But more importantly, the theatrical recounting diminishes one’s confidence in what the authors actually say.

Despite the dramatic portrayal of their own visit to the mines, Levy and Scott-Clark do not explain very clearly why it was so difficult to get there. My own Lonely Planet guidebook, published a year before this volume, states the situation plainly: “Another spot formerly off-limits is the jade mining center of Hpakan, 148 km northwest of Myitkyina. Permission is required and can usually be arranged by any hotel.”

One gets the feeling that there is some discrepancy in this, though the guidebook certainly confirms that “Myanmar has one of the highest HIV infection rates . . . in the world.” It is a matter that deserves the world’s attention and concern. “The Stone of Heaven” will undoubtedly arouse such concern in readers, while they are enjoying it in other ways.