Gambling for jade on the China-Myanmar border

Jade is big business in China

Patrick Cordwell

Society and culture, Economics | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

19 October 2016

The unofficial lotteries and clandestine casinos of China are the source of many tales of instant wealth and dramatic financial loss. But in Yunnan province, you’re more likely to see amateur gamblers pin their hopes, and their savings, on lumps of rock as they hunt for precious jade.

Jade is big business in China. In Yunnan province alone, the industry employs more than 500,000 people and annual sales of the precious stone have reached nearly US $2.5 billion. The prized stones flow across the border from Myanmar, and most find their way to counters in cavernous showrooms and glittering jewellery emporiums in Ruili, a small city near the frontier.

But not all jade that trades hands in Ruili is beautiful and polished.

Raw jade is covered by base material, meaning that in its natural state, it’s impossible to tell the quality of the stone within. Its true value is therefore concealed, fuelling fantasies that a rock could be hiding a glittering jadeite secret. For hundreds of years, this mystery has driven the thriving business of du shi – ‘gambling rock’.

The idea is straightforward. A raw stone of any shape or size is purchased – neither the buyer nor seller know what is inside. The buyer slices it open, revealing the stones’ true value. For most its worthless, but there’s always a chance of finding priceless jade hidden inside.

Those who get lucky can sell the stone to a jewellery company and profit immediately, or take a further gamble by keeping it and hoping that the price of jade continues to increase.

More on this: Should we boycott Myanmar?

It’s a game that appeals to the twin Chinese passions of gambling and jade, a valuable stone that has etched itself into Chinese culture. Long ago, Confucius believed it to reflect the virtues of a true gentleman – its fine texture representing wisdom and its purity signifying loyalty and benevolence. With such symbolic value, jade has become an age-old cultural obsession.

It is no surprise then that thousands flock to Yunnan to try their luck at du shi. This eagerness is only inflated by dramatic stories that tell of peasants uncovering endless wealth as they break open stones to reveal precious jadeite.

In one famous story, a jade trader from Sichuan Province purchased a stone in Myanmar for US $9,000. Inside he found a rare jadeite with seven different colours, and the estimated value skyrocketed to US $60 million.

But there’s no such luck for the overwhelming majority who try their hand at du shi. Like any form of gambling, the sad stories of extreme financial loss and hardship are much more common. People often take out loans or borrow large amounts of money from family and friends to finance a bet on a worthless rock containing nothing of value.

Such was the case for Long Jiheng, a jade-gambler when the industry first exploded in the 1990s after the construction of a bridge connecting jade-rich Kachin State in Myanmar to jade-hungry Yunnan. According to him, he purchased a 1000kg raw stone for over US $1 million. It didn’t contain the precious jade he was sure that it was hiding. “I planned to commit suicide by jumping into the river to end all of the mess”, he said.

As Chinese websites offering du shi mushroom all over the Internet, the scale of gambling is only set to increase. It’s now possible to peruse pages upon pages of stones at every price point, and take a chance without travelling to Yunnan as hundreds of thousands have done in the past.

The only threat to the industry is the continued supply of jade from across the border. But with the United States recently lifting sanctions on Myanmar, including those on jade, it seems likely that the precious stones will continue to flow eastwards from Kachin State.

And as long as there is supply, the demand for du shi will continue. As the Chinese proverb goes, “there is a price for gold, but no price for jade”.

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