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Schlagintweit – Modern European Explorers

1.0 Introduction

The Kun Lun Mountains in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China, are the source, since the earliest Chinese Dynasties, of the famous white Nephrite Jade for the Chinese kings and emperors.

Jade was collected as water worn boulder material near Khotan from the Karakax or Hei Yu (Black Jade), the Yurungkax or Bai Yu (White Jade Picking) and the Yangi Darya or Lü Yu (Green Jade) River and their alluvial fans. The extraction of in-situ jade in the surrounding mountains started much later once the alluvial deposits started to play out. This "Mountain or Shan Liao" jade was however considered inferior to the "River or Zi Yu" jade because of the likely presence of hidden fractures raised the danger that, after months of toiling labor, a Jade object would break before its completion.

These fractures were either natural or caused by the crude extraction method consisting in heating the jade veins with big fires and then letting them cool down rapidly. The jade cracked and pieces could be pried off it. In "River" jade only stress- and fracture-free boulders survived the jarring river transport over hundreds of Km carried by the melt waters of the glaciers and snow fields of the Kun Lun mountain to the gravel deposits around Khotan.

A first reference to Jade mining was made in 1133 by Du Wan in his lapidary encyclopedia the Yun li shi bu, but probably more intensive "Mountain jade" mining initiated only in the 15th century when the increased tribute payments to and the Jade hunger of the Imperial Court in Bejing required to tap also the more difficult accessible mountain deposits.

The Jade collection in the region of Kothan was described, next to numerous Chinese envoys and texts, by different Europeans travelers such as Marco Polo (1272-73) and the Jesuit priest Benedict Goes (1602) as they and others were on their way, on the southern leg of the Silk Road, to Cathay and the Imperial China.

Abel Remusat (Histoire de la Ville de Khotan, Paris 1820) and Carl Ritter (Erdkunde Asien, 1838) made a summary of the Khotan Jade information from ancient literature just before a new breed of explorers reached the area and was able to give us first modern eyewitness reports.

These modern explorers reached Khotan however now from the South. Their steps followed the ancient merchant caravan road from Leh in Ladakh to Yarkand in Turkistan crossing the Himalaya chain over the Karakorum pass...

To read the entire article, please download the .pdf here:

Part 1-2
Part 3
Part 4-5

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August 2004

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