In 說文解字 (Shuo wen jie zi), the first Chinese dictionary published in the early second century CE, Jade was defined as “beautiful stones”. Here are two famous stories about Jade called He Shi Zhi Bi and Wan Bi Gui Zhao.
A long time ago Bian He was a Jade master from the state of Chu. He was consigned to the task of finding the best jade.
He set forth climbing the mountains and turning over every stone. On a day he came to Mount Jin, and, according to legends, he saw a pair of phoenixes frolicking on the rocks. Bian He took it to be a sign that was a treasure in this mountain.
After a long search, he stumbled upon a large piece of stone that looked completely unremarkable at first.
When he looked closer though and inspected its grains and veins, Bian He was convinced that it was a rare piece of jade. He immediately brought it back to King Li of Chu.
The king’s men told the king that it was an ordinary stone and that Bian He was a cheat. Emperor Li ordered the men to chop off Bian He’s left foot and dump him onto the street.
Despite being in such terrible pain Bian He dragged himself back to Mount Jin. He never lost the confidence that the stone was jade and believed that one day the truth of the stone’s value would be revealed.
Three years later King Li died. King Wu succeeded to the throne. Bian He took the stone to the capital and presented it to the new king.
King Wu summoned his workers to evaluate it. They too came to the conclusion it was nothing more than an ordinary stone! Poor Bian He lost his right foot.
He crawled back to Mount Jin and wept. When his tears dried up, his eyes shed blood.
After many years King Wu died and King Wen became ruler. When King Wen heard about a footless man weeping over a stone he wondered if there could have been a mistake. Again, the stone was brought to the king’s court.
King Wen found it looking quite an ordinary stone. He nevertheless summoned his workmen to have a look.
The workmen knocked off bits of the stone and one of them said that perhaps the matter could be put to rest by opening it.
Opening a stone took a great amount of work. As the last bit of the shell was worn off, light shone from inside.
The workmen dropped their tools and knelt down. The stone was something the world had never seen before. The jade was so large and pure that it mesmerized everyone with its unfathomable splendor.
It was as if all the beauty in the entire universe was compressed into a handful of green. The KIng was congratulated and Bian He let out a piercing cry that reverberated in the hallways of history. (Jade is known as 价值连城, ‘Valued at multiple cities” because of this story).
Bian He’s Jade Disc was the envy of all the kings and dukes all over China. Then it was later stolen from Chu and eventually sold to the state of Zhao.
The King of Qin offered 15 cities to the State of Zhao in exchange for the jade.
Qin was then the most powerful state, making it difficult for the stake of Zhao to decline the offer.
But it was also known that the Kings of Qin had historically been untrustworthy.
The King of Zhao did not trust the King of Qin. Minister Lin was dispatched to send the jade to Qin. At the Qin court, it became clear that Qin would not uphold its side of the bargain.
Minister Lin then tricked the king of Qin, claiming that the jade had a small defect on it.
The Marquis of Qin said he could not find it, and asked Lin to show him where the scar was.
Lin took the jade and then threatened to smash the Jade Disc and his own head on the court pillar if the King of Qin tried to take it back by force.
The Qin king, unwilling to see such a thing ruined, agreed.
That night, still not trusting the King of Qin, Minister Lin ordered his henchman to take the jade and return to Zhao in secret.
After some amount of political trickery, the jade disc was returned to the Zhao State.
In 221 BCE, the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi conquered the Zhao state, and as the ruler and founder of the Qin dynasty, he had the disc carved into a seal representing the new united China.