For you and me living in the age of plastic, the fact of transparent glasses and bottles would too insignificant to mention, but to the ancient eye, a clear and colorless material would have been mesmerizing and luxurious.
The Chinese held rock crystal in high regard, even calling it “the elite among stones” although this colorless gemstone is the most abundant of the quartzes, itself one of the commonest gemstones on earth.
Crystal evokes the ether—the empty space through which inspiration, cosmic truth, and clairvoyant vision can emerge. For this reason, Chinese associated this stone with concentration and perseverance.
Throughout Chinese history, colorless quartz was known by a variety of fanciful names, including “water jade.” It was once believed that this stone formed from water that remained frozen for thousands of years—though even if it wasn’t, it certainly was as clear as water and as hard as jade.
But today it is simply called “shui jing,” meaning “water crystal.” The written character for crystal comprises the character for the sun, repeated three times—an obvious allusion to its shine.
However, not all crystals are clear. According to the oldest ancient Chinese document about antique identification, “southern crystals are white, northern crystals are dark, and Xinzhou (modern-day Chongqing) crystals are turbid.” These probably refer to milky quartz and varying shades of smoky quartz, respectively. Regardless, multiple varieties (including amethyst, smoky quartz, as well as the favored clear variety) were found in early tombs.
This article is part of the Divine Land Gemstone Compendium, a weekly series by Yun Boutique exploring the gemstones of ancient China and their significance to Chinese culture. See the full series here. Subscribe to the email newsletter to receive future installments.
Edited and produced by Christine Lin. Researched by Ariel Tian.
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