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Bookworm Festival Pulse : Jade Life: In Conversation with Andrew Shaw

“I arrived with my suitcase in one hand and my ignorance in the other” – this is how English-born Andrew Shaw describes his first arrival in China. From this humorous beginning, he has since gone on to become China’s only foreign master carver of jade. Over the course of an hour, he discusses his personal history with China, the craft of jade carving, the international jade industry, and every topic in between.

It seems Shaw is well used to the amazement provoked by his title of master carver – how on earth did he become so skilled in jade carving, and just what made him start? All is explained in a short video which prefaces his talk, as Shaw uses a mixture of Chinese and English to tell his story.

Originally a senior reporter for the BBC, Shaw stayed in Thailand for four months in 2003. During this time, he visited a jade carving workshop and felt a pull towards the stone. Suddenly all he wanted to do was learn how to carve jade himself. He quit his job, moved to Suzhou – famous for the quality of its jade pieces – and there began the search for a teacher.

After six months of searching, Shaw found his teacher. This first teacher gave Shaw use of a workshop, jade to practise on and tools to use every day for two years – a generosity he says you would be hard-pressed to find among the goldsmiths of London or other similar professions.

This generosity is linked to Shaw’s views on jade and the people it attracts in general. The stone is tied to Chinese culture and has been for thousands of years – Confucius was one of the early speakers extolling the virtues of jade. Jade “represents everything good in China” in a way that attracts good people, Shaw says. He also told us that to fully understand the Chinese symbolism of jade, you really need to talk to Chinese people. His own book is more about “the Chinese jade industry seen through the eyes of a foreigner”.

Nonetheless, it would be hard to overstate Shaw’s knowledge of the stone. When the moderator of the talk, Rianke Mohan, gives Shaw her jade necklace to inspect, he says within seconds the specific variety of jade it was made from and where it was carved – even that it had been carved by a computer.

Shaw’s historical knowledge is similarly broad. Jade was one of the first musical instruments in China, he says. Confucius was said to be good at “playing the stones”, which meant instruments made of jade. Shaw has brought a similar instrument to the panel – a piece of jade curved like a bracelet. When struck, it rings out bright and clear with a delicate, bell-like sound. Whenever Shaw feels stressed in his workshop, he tells us, the sound of jade can always help relax him. There are even jades sold as worry or meditation pieces; holding them in your hand is said to have a calming effect on people. As to the other purported healing powers of jade, Shaw only smiles and says, “There are many myths about jade – it depends what you believe”.

On the more practical side, Shaw leaves us with a few words of advice for buying jade – if you were buying diamonds, “would you go to a tourist trap or a jeweller”? Treat buying jade in the same way, he recommends. “Find a piece you like and then look at the price,” he says. “If you can’t afford it, look for another piece.”

The monetary value of jade is less important than the meaning embedded in an individual crafted piece. The stone finds significance on a personal level, as well as in its symbolic resonance within Chinese culture. For Shaw, this is the true beauty and value of jade.

Written by: Kiera Johnson

Student in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer 2019

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