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Jade master carves out a niche

A trendy under-50 jade master carver produces works that are prized by billionaires, celebrities and senior government officials. But he tells Wang Jie that he had humble beginnings and luck.

One of Shanghai's top jade carvers is not a stereotypical ancient chap bent over a worktable, but a stylish, not-yet-50 fellow who favors white linen summer suits and an LV bag.

Tall, slender and energetic, Zhai Yiwei was recently named one of the city's heirs to the art of jade carving, considered a part of China's intangible cultural heritage.

"What? I don't look like a craftsman?" Zhai says lightly. "But I tell you, I entered this field when I was just 14."

And he's come a long way. In 2005 he launched his personal namesake brand of jade art. He says he produces no more than 10 masterpieces a year and these are collected by billionaires, celebrities and high-ranking government officials.

"This could be called the haute-couture jade collection," he says, adding that each piece costs several million yuan.

Born in 1961 in Shanghai, Zhai was selected to study jade carving at Shanghai Jade and Stone Carving Factory in 1975 when he was still in middle school.

"At that time, there was no national university entrance examination due to the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76), so it was a special opportunity for me," he recalls.

He learned the skills and came to understand the stones, the many kinds of jade.

Unlike many of his factory peers, Zhai was ahead of the times and in the early 1980s he went to Japan "to see the outside world," a trend among Chinese young people at the time.

In the late 1990s, he opened a shop selling carved jade on the Internet, much earlier than, now the most popular online shoppig site in China.

Zhai has honed his skills in carving jade tablets (usually in the rectangular shape no bigger than a palm's size) - the basic cutting of stone before the intricate carving begins. At first glance, it might appear simple.

"Try it yourself!" Zhai says. "Cutting nephrite jade into a rectangular-shaped tablet is much harder than you would expect."

Zhai usually works on rare Hetian jade, considered the most precious - a creamy, milky, fine-grained and "oily" stone mined on the north side of the Kunlun Mountain in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

It is highly prized for its delicacy and brightness, but it is extremely rare and Kunlun has been overmined.

Because it is considered the ultimate in Chinese jade, Hetian jade was used to make the medals for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Hetian nephrite is considered the "national jade."

Due to the unique characteristics of Hetian jade, its cutting, processing and carving are quite difficult. Every step must be cautiously taken, lest a precious piece be ruined and wasted. It demands decades of practice.

Zhai's Hetian jade pieces are noted for its first class jade, elegant design and intricate carving. He says that one piece usually takes three months to create.

"Some of my friends complain that the price of Hetian jade has rocketed to a daunting figure in recent years," he says, "but I tell them the price will go higher and higher in the future."

It perfectly symbolizes the spirit of Chinese culture "and nothing can surpass it."

In ancient China, only the royal family and noble families were permitted to wear and use Hetian jade - it was even buried with them, he says.

Zhai says he is planning to start another brand which will be more affordable to the younger generation. He says he owes a lot to young white-collar workers who supported his Internet shop early in his career.

"At that time, Internet shops were not so trustworthy," he says. He remembers receiving 60,000 yuan (US$9,266) from a young buyer for a Hetian jade carving. "He just saw a picture on the Internet. I was moved by his trust in me."

His new brand will offer more design concepts, appealing to the aesthetic tastes of urban young people. He plans to promote it in major shopping malls around China.

"I am a bit tired to find so many traditional-style jade pieces on the market," he says.

"I don't want to be an anonymous master craftsman all my life like my seniors," he says.

"I am Zhai Yiwei, a name to be remembered."

Jade in Chinese culture

In ancient times, fine jade of various kinds was believed to be animated by a soul. Even today, it is a symbol of all things precious, pure and beautiful. Wearing it against the skin is said to bring good luck and fortune.

Jade once represented wealth and social status. Perhaps the most famous piece of jade in literature is found in Cao Xueqin's "A Dream of Red Mansions," the classical 18th century novel about the decline of feudal society. In the novel the protagonist Jia Baoyu was born with a unique piece of jade in his mouth - it was known as tongling baoyu (precious jade of spiritual enligtenment). The story is known throughout China.

Though Chinese today are looking to glittering gems always popular in the West, there's still a place in their heart for pure jade.


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