“Jade Life: An Englishman’s love affair with China’s national treasure” by Andrew Shaw

Snowflake in Siberian ice green jade Snowflake in Siberian ice green jade

Andrew Shaw was for many years a “trouble shooter” television journalist in the employ of the BBC. His job required him to pick up and fly to wherever whatever piece of news was breaking. After what many would regard as an enviable pursuit of exhaustive and widely varied paid foreign travel, he tired of it largely because his calling denied him the underlying exotica of his destinations.

One day in 2002, in a shop in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai which specialized in jadeite, the particular type of jade sourced for two centuries from Burma, one piece—an almost flawless lavender piece of jadeite—caught his eye and imagination. He fondled it, angling it in the light and became increasingly absorbed in it. He did not haggle over price of because he was sure that he must have it; it became his; it became his.

A Pauline conversion from journalism to jade was followed by an insatiable desire for a full satisfaction of his interest. Shaw resigned from the BBC and in 2008 took a flight for Shanghai en route for Suzhou, which he had heard was—and after all his new experience still believes to be—the center for working jadeite and nephrite in modern China. His quest was not simply one of admiration for and desire to possess this noble stone but rather to work it and bring out of its adamantine hardness a thing of beauty made by him to follow through his original inspiration in Chiang Mai.


Jade Life: An Englishman’s love affair with China's national treasure, Andrew Shaw (Earnshaw Books, March 2019)
Jade Life: An Englishman’s love affair with China’s national treasure, Andrew Shaw (Earnshaw Books, March 2019)

Shaw arrived in Suzhou with a suitcase and now in 2019 has become an accomplished worker in jade—in fact the only European worker in jade in China. His skill working both jadeite and nephrite has lifted him from the position of raw novice to China-wide—even worldwide—fame as a jade worker, crafting beauty out of rough stones to his own original designs.

In an economic journalism style, Andrew Shaw has laid out in Jade Life his own autobiography in the world of jade but has also delved into the underlying background of the nephrite and jadeite materials, covering the history, range, appeal and achievement in which this remarkable stone has inculcated itself into the very historical psyche of the people of China. At least, that is, as nephrite and some related stones are concerned: jadeite which has only been used in China for perhaps 200 years, a scintilla of time which pales against and is dwarfed by the 8000-year history of nephrite working in China.

Shaw also covers the full factual layout of the market for jade in China and the increasing frequency of major exhibitions of works in jade which are a feature of regular demand by the market in China. He very helpfully—in fact almost exceptionally in such a book—included an extremely helpful background chapter explaining why the Chinese people love jade and have worked numerous idioms and analogies to the sacred stone into their everyday language. There is also a very helpful glossary which not only sets out the pinyin pronunciation of Chinese words but also accompanies each definition with the relevant Chinese characters.

Through clear and crisp spinning of his own story and that of the history of jade and the jade markets in which he moves and works, Shaw has knitted together a unique and highly valuable while user-friendly and readable contribution to this exotic subject. His enthusiasm and increasingly deep knowledge of the subject are palpable and it is to be hoped that this book will be the first of many and will find a wide circulation among jade lovers as well as those not yet familiar with material.


If the book has one drawback, it is in Shaw’s use of the word “carve” for working both nephrite and jadeite. The renowned English artist, Grinling Gibbons, used a hammer and chisel to carve wondrous things out of wood. Michelangelo and Henry Moore used hammer and chisel to sculpt marble. This is impossible with both jadeite and nephrite which are too hard to carve and, having no planes of cleavage in a felted crystalline structure, can only be worked by abrading with the assistance of dust made from a crushed harder material—these days often carborundum.

It would also have been useful to bring out the Han Dynasty attribution of the four directions of the compass to the black tortoise of the North, the red bird of the South, the blue dragon of the East and the white tiger of the West.

But these are caviling quibbles which do not detract from the overall achievement of an impressive story and book.

Angus Forsyth is an internationally respected collector of, and authority on, Chinese jade. Former president of the Oriental Ceramics Society of Hong Kong, he is author of Ships of the Silk Road: The Bactrian Camel in Chinese Jade (Bloomsbury 2019).