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Tenchong's history is inextricably entwined with the jadeite trade
Updated: 2019-01-05 11:53:44
( China Daily )

Tengchong's history and culture are closely related to jade. Hundreds of jewelry shops and stalls cluster in the city's markets. [PHOTO BY LIU XIANGRUI/CHINA DAILY]

In addition to the local jewelry markets, where hundreds of jewelry shops and stalls cluster, there are also regular wholesale or raw stone bazaars for jade in Tengchong, which is known as the Jade town of Yunnan province.

Located near the border with Myanmar, Tengchong is a major processing center for jadeite, which is one of the two minerals recognized as jade, the other being nephrite. Nephrite is found in China. Jadeite, which is scarcer and thus more expensive, comes from Myanmar, with the most prized being the yellowish jadeite known as imperial jade.

Tenchong's association with jadeite can be traced back about 600 years, according to Lu Dalin, curator of the Tengchong Jadeite Museum. Historical records such as the Travels of Xu Xiake indicate that Tengchong jadeite products enjoyed a very good reputation throughout Yunnan in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and they were highly sought after.

"Tengchong's history and culture are closely related to jade. The jade trade has been here for hundreds of years," says Lu.

The trade used to be a very prosperous industry in Tengchong, especially at the beginning of the 20th century, when a number of famous companies set up here because of the convenience of importing the jadeite from Myanmar and the booming international trade in its finished products.

Cross-border trade started to take off again in the 1980s with China's reform and opening-up, and the jadeite trade has been one of the pillar industries for the city again since then. In 1998, about 70 percent of jadeite in China was processed here, Lu says.

Tengchong's history and culture are closely related to jade. Hundreds of jewelry shops and stalls cluster in the city's markets. [PHOTO BY LIU XIANGRUI/CHINA DAILY]

"The jadeite business was closely related to the economic growth of the city over the past years," says Lu, who was one of the earliest to be involved in the business after the border was opened up.

Lu estimates that the jadeite industry in Tengchong has reached a scale of 6 billion yuan ($872 million), and jadeite is now firmly established as part of the local culture.

"Ask a local resident, old or young, he or she is likely to know something about jadeite. And almost every family in Tengchong will have some jadeite pieces," says Li Bo, a local tour guide.

Li says the city's jadeite culture is also an important attraction for tourists, many of whom come to buy jadeite pieces at various price levels and to purchase the traditional "gambling stones" - which are rocks that contain some kind of jade within but the quality remains to be determined. Potential buyers can be seen using a flashlight to try and ascertain whether the jade inside is good or not.

Lu's jadeite museum, which opened five years ago, displays more than 100 pieces of raw jadeite as well as more than 3,000 pieces of old jadeite pieces from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) along with some unfinished pieces.

Tengchong's history and culture are closely related to jade. Hundreds of jewelry shops and stalls cluster in the city's markets. [PHOTO BY LIU XIANGRUI/CHINA DAILY]

According to the Tengchong Jewelry and Jade Association, which has conducted a survey on the local jadeite industry, the number of people engaged in Tengchong's jade industry is more than 20,000.

Yu Hongxian, 43, is one of them. Yu has been running a jade company in Tengchong for more than 10 years.

Her company is mainly dedicated to the wholesaling of processed jadeite pieces, both with dealers from Tengchong and other cities. The amount of sales can reach several million yuan per year, although she says the profit margin is relatively narrow.

She employs more than 30 sales personnel and processors, with 15 of them being local residents and 15 Myanmar citizens.

According to Yu, the industry started to grow rapidly when machinery was widely employed in the mining process at the beginning of the new millennium.

Yu's grandfather was a native of Tengchong but moved to Myitkyina, in Kachin State of Myanmar, to make a living. Both her parents used to be traditional jade miners.

"In the past, miners like my parents had to dig manually, and it was really hard work," Yu recalls.

"As a child, I grew up in the mining zone, and I learned about jadeite mining and the jadeite business from my parents."

According to Yu, a great many of the overseas Chinese in Kachin are involved in jadeite mining. Meanwhile, the raw stone markets in Kachin have attracted many dealers from Tengchong across the border.

Tengchong's history and culture are closely related to jade. Hundreds of jewelry shops and stalls cluster in the city's markets. [PHOTO BY LIU XIANGRUI/CHINA DAILY]

Now Yu's entire family, including her three brothers and her husband, are involved in different parts of the jadeite industry. She travels frequently between Tengchong and Kachin for her business.

According to Yu, people's tastes and their understanding of jadeite has changed over time, which has also exerted great influence on the industry.

"A few years ago, products with relatively low prices were the best sellers, but now, the situation has changed, and high-end products have a better market," Yu says.

Besides the larger shops, there are also a lot of local people who make a living from stalls selling jadeite products.

Dong Shutang, 31, owns a jade stall in Linyun Jewelry Market, one of the largest jewelry markets in Tengchong.

The prices for items sold at his stall, both for retail and wholesale, range from less than a 100 yuan to several thousand yuan per piece.

According to Dong, he can sell about 60 pieces a month, from which he makes on average 5,000 yuan a month.

Several of his family members are doing the same business, too. Dong used to be a vendor of amber, but turned to jadeite business two years ago with an initial investment of about 80,000 yuan. "Doing the business gives me greater freedom compared with working as a migrant worker in other cities, although it required a relatively big investment," explains Dong, who tries to limit his inventory to reduce the risks.

The local jadeite industry has experienced a slowdown over the past few years and adjustments are being made to suit the new market trends, according to Lu.

In recent years, the local government has strengthened policy support for the industry, including constructing a high-end jadeite industrial park and boosting the jadeite carving industry and introducing more domestic and international jewelry brands, jade carving masters and skilled craftsmen to the city.

A jewelry college has been established with the approval of the Ministry of Education, which can play key roles in industrial development in areas such as brand building, talent cultivation, and academic exchanges.

"The root remains and Tengchong still has special advantages, even though some problems need to be solved in the future," Lu says.

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