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`City of Jade' Hidden in Mountains

Walking on the well-paved, time-worn stone slab roads which meander through the small town of Tengchong in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, you soon find yourself permeated by the peace and solitude found in any far-flung place.

Yet this tiny town, besieged by mountains, enjoyed unparalleled prosperity in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The history of Tengchong revolving around jade, or jadeite, is now repeating itself.

Today, the special stone still has some bearing on everyone's life in the town.

Chinese people have loved the lustrous, sleek beauty of the stone for several thousand years.

"There is a price for gold but no price for jade," says one popular Chinese proverb. One legend tells how a king once offered 15 towns for a piece of jadeware.

As early as 500 years ago, business people in Tengchong started to deal in jade. In the 1930s, what Tengchong was to the jade trade is what Amsterdam is to industrial diamonds now.

Known as the world's "City of Jade," the town hosted more than 90 per cent of the world's jadeite deals, providing an ideal base because of its good geographical location.

About 200 kilometers to the west of Tengchong lies Menggong, a city in Myanmar that produces the best jade in the world. The "Sichuan-India Road," the oldest trade route in Asia now more commonly known as the "Silk Road of the South," used to pass by Myitkyina before it ended in India. Myitkyina lies between Pagan and Menggong, the two most famous places for producing jade in Myanmar.

Nine out of 10 local mountains are volcanoes, making Tengchong rich in geo-thermal resources - benefits from the internal heat of the Earth - but deplete of arable land. This compelled people to think of other ways to make a living, and working in the jade and gem mines in northern Myanmar was the first choice.

Hard work and sharp minds produced the most successful jade business people, who controlled the jade fields.

Both common people and the imperial family had a demand for this precious stone, and soon jade mining and trade were catapulted to a level never seen before.

Before the 1950s, almost all the jade mined in Myanmar was transported to Tengchong for further processing before being sold to other places.

The first Chinese who sold it to Chinese Hong Kong and other places around the world was Cun Dongru, from Heshun Village in Tengchong.

Cun went to work in a jade factory in Myanmar when he was only 10 years old. Saving every penny he could, Cun started his own business and eventually made a fortune in the jade trade.

He made large donations to Sun Yat-sen's (1866-1925) revolutionary drive, and in 1898, Cun had the first girl's school set up in Tengchong.

Following in Cun's footsteps is a long list of jade business people from Tengchong, who have contributed to the development of their hometowns by setting up schools, newspapers and libraries.

The prosperity of the jade trade was interrupted during the "War of Resistance against Japanese aggression" (1937-45) and it finally came to a halt when jade objects were condemned as representing feudal cultural values during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

The jade trade was not resumed until the early 1990s.

Now it once again brings wealth and fortune to local people. As the trade recovered, craftsmanship also became important.

In the early 1910s, there were about 100 workshops involved in jade carving in the town. Today, the jade carving business is expanding quickly, spilling into Tengchong's outlying areas and bringing wealth to local people. In Hehuachi Village, some 20 kilometers away, there are 80 to 100 household workshops engaged in jade carving.

Yi Kerao's is one of the biggest and most successful workshops.

The family has two grinding machines. Besides farming, they make small jade accessories. Their well-trained hands can shape lotus leaves, dragons and phoenix. Each piece is polished before it is sold in bulk to local dealers.

Travelers can then buy jade pieces at prices ranging from 3 yuan (US$0.4) to 40 yuan (US$5).

The Yi family can make 20,000-30,000 yuan (US$2,400-3,600) a year from the trade.

"We get food from our harvest, but the other income comes from this family trade," Yi said, pointing to the big refrigerator and color TV set in the room.

Yi's mother was among the first four people in Hehuachi Village who learned the skill in 1951 from two traveling jade carvers.

Yi's mother passed the craft on to the family members, and when Yi's daughter Yi Yanli was married to a man in nearby Yusan Village, she took the skill with her.

In recent years, with more women who have grasped the craft marrying Yusan villagers, more and more people in the village have picked up the skill. Now 90 out of the 200 households in Yusan Village have set up their own family workshops.

Yi Yanli's house is set in a spacious courtyard. His two-story building has a wooden porch supported by carved pillars.

"We never dare to gamble on jade. We live on the craft that our ancestors left to us," said Yi Yanli

(China Daily 01/17/2001)

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