The principal sources for the jade called nephrite are two rivers that cascade down from the Tibetan highlands, and flow past the ancient Silk Road city of Khotan before disappearing into the sands of the Taklamakhan desert. The White Jade River and the Green Jade River are dry for much of the year, but in spring become torrents, dislodging an avalanche of rocks and rolling them along the flat stretches of the rivers until the spate subsides. It is then that the locals from Khotan and the surrounding villages come out to walk the river-bed, searching for the shiny sleek pebbles of jade. The rivers are wide, and the jumble
of rocks bewildering.
I discovered pebbles of jade in the markets of Khotan on my first visit there in September 1990, and began buying whatever I could find until I had a suitcase full. They seemed so much more beautiful than jade that was carved, polished by their journey from some unknown seam high in the Himalayas. One morning in the market a trader offered to drive me to a village outside town where he knew someone who gathered jade. The man he introduced was in his early 20s; he was a Hafez, a man who knew the Qur’an by heart; and he was totally blind. He walked in the river-bed in his bare feet, and could tell jade from other stones by its feel. He was the most successful collector of jade in the region. Only one piece was left from the previous spring, this finger of dark green jade, which he gave to me as a present.
The Emperor Qianlong invaded Eastern Turkestan in part to gain control of the source of Khotan jade, so desirable was it for the Chinese. On a visit to one of the Ming tombs, I was surprised to see a pile of unworked jade in the burial chamber, a portion of his luggage for the afterlife. But because he was an emperor they were boulders, not pebbles.