Jagged history of jadeite

The precious stone once inspired the plunder of China – now, the virtual enslavement of Burmese

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but jadeite is the world's most expensive gem. Found only in a tiny area of northern Burma (Myanmar), jadeite has been treasured for thousands of years. Distinguished chemically from ordinary jade, jadeite is a silicate of sodium and aluminum. Today, single pieces sell for millions of dollars.

"The Stone of Heaven" begins with 18th-century Chinese Emperor Qianlong's obsession with jadeite. He wrote 800-line poems to the stone and had it carved into everything from fingernail protectors to treasure boxes. He ate crushed jadeite to improve the flow of his chi. (Don't try that at home.) To secure his supply, he threatened the Lord of the Mines, the king of Burma, with invasion unless tribute in jadeite was paid each year.

Authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, former foreign correspondents for The Sunday (London) Times, recognize that jadeite's legend is intimately woven into the great lootings which punctuate modern Chinese history. French and British forces stormed the emperor's Summer Palace in the 1860 Second Opium War, looting thousands of pieces of jadeite. China's last emperor smuggled stones from the Forbidden City to finance his futile attempts to regain the Celestial Throne. And gorgeous pieces from the Dowager Empress's funeral ended up in Taiwan's National Museum after Chiang Kai-shek authorized the plunder of her tomb. Choice pieces made their way to Madame Chiang's personal collection.

"The Stone of Heaven" also recounts the largely forgotten English conquest of Burma. The paper trail of the Raj, slowly rotting in the Indian National Archives, provides engrossing first-person accounts of 19th-century jadeite hunters traveling up the Great Irrawaddy River to the malarial jungles of the fierce Kachin people.

Today, Burma's military junta has taken over the jadeite mines for personal profit. The area surrounding the mines is forbidden to foreigners. Risking their lives and carrying bribes, the authors managed to report from the purgatory of these nearly exhausted jadeite mines.

In the closed city of Hpakant, hundreds of thousands of Burmese, hoping to strike it rich, sift by hand through the jagged rocks and mud. The junta keeps the workers digging by providing uncut heroin through needles shared by literally hundreds of users. AIDS is rampant and ignored.

Jadeite's beauty is tainted with brutality, greed, and theft. "The Stone of Heaven" skillfully taps a rich vein of hidden history and modern misery to tell jadeite's secret story.

• Jay Currie is a freelance writer in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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