'That's way too two-dimensional,' is Master Yu’s appraisal of my jade cloud. To be fair on myself, they had given me a flat piece of Qinghai biyu jade to work with. But even so, I just wasn’t etching in enough cloudy relief.
There are eight of us carving away at pieces of jade of all shapes, sizes and colours – and values. I’m the newest but certainly not the youngest apprentice. Apprentices Bai and Hu are fresh out of jade carving college and busy working away at staple pieces under the auspices of Master Zhang Tiecheng, who’s quite a bigwig in jade-carving circles. They’re at the stage where he will try to evaluate their characters to determine what roles they’ll play at this company, then into their careers. The main pattern is that young graduates learn their skills in the north then head south where most of the demand and job opportunities are; the closer to Hong Kong the better.
Part of the enduring appeal of jade stems from the fact that there’s always been jade available for almost every budget due to the wide range of quality, so unlike other stones and metals it hasn’t been reserved solely for nobility. It has a common touch I’m hoping to tap into. With a drill.
Master Zhang helps the carvers with their designs. They take a piece of jade and evaluate it to see what can be carved out of it, assessing the colours to incorporate into the design and any flaws to work around. They mark up the piece with a marker pen then get it under a pipe dripping water, with a range of power tools at hand.
'The water is important,' says Master Yu, who’s helping me with my artistic vision. 'It stops the jade getting hot, removes the dust, lets you see what you’re doing more clearly and means the tools don’t wear out as quickly.' Though it mainly seems to get in the way. Surprisingly, you don’t actually clamp the jade into any sort of vice. You just have a drill in one hand and hold onto the stone in the other. But in a very particular way, of course. My first task is to try and smooth out some of the holes that have been drilled into some Qinghai qingyu jade that is being carved to replace missing jade inlays from wooden lattice window structures at the Forbidden City.
The originals would have been made from much more valuable pieces of jade, without power tools and without one-day jobbers. (Master Wu says that the Qianlong Emperor was such a jade fanatic that whole areas of China were stripped of their reserves.)
I’m using what seems fundamentally to be dentistry equipment. I have a fine sanding bit attached and set it to a slowish speed and rub away at the lumpy innards of the inlay. They remind me to breathe. 'You can see how it takes a long time, right?' asks Yu. ‘This one hole would take over an hour to cut. It’s one of about 30 on the 6cm piece of jade.
When I feel confident I’ve smoothed down a single 5mm hole, I move on to my flat, freestyle cloud design. 'It does look a bit like a cloud, but you’re just not pressing hard enough,' says Yu. Master Song behind me, however, is just over a year into his two-year masterpiece tripod with dangling chains. I ask how much it’s worth. 'Well, there’s not really clients and companies ordering things like this anymore, but it would be over a million yuan if it were on sale.'
With thanks to all the staff at Yu Zunyuan Jade Carving.