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State, society, and the language of jade in Southeast Asia

Alice Dawkins

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


Peruse the internet for Myanmar-China news and the space is awash with insights about the two states’ participation in the trade of jade. The best contribution is probably the New York Times’ handsomely shot video feature from earlier this year. It’s no surprise that there’s an interest in the topic; the nature of it is compelling and evocative, much like the stone itself. What other narrative of a tradeable commodity brings together the shared history of two of the most transformed states in Asia, illicit drugs, wealthy investors, ethnic militia, and guerilla fighting? It’s a sexy storyline that would be at home in a Hong Kong action movie.

However in the haste to tell the story of the stone, and the jaded trail it leaves between these two countries, many commentators are skipping the meta-picture. Devotees of James Scott will nod their heads in agreement that a discrete-states approach to understanding spaces like Southeast Asia is fraught with folly. The jade industry is not just a state and non-state actor narrative between wealthy Chinese buyers, impoverished Kachin miners, and oscillating Burmese decision makers. It is the core of an extensive overland network between Myanmar, China, Thailand, and Laos, an organised community where disparate ethnicities share the common language and culture of jade. It is perhaps the most illustrative example of the way economic incentive and the porous borders of upland Southeast Asia interact with one another.

Firstly – the stone itself warrants a focus. There are two geological varieties of jade primarily traded throughout Asia. Both have slightly different aesthetic qualities. The first, nephrite, is the most common, found in areas such as Xinjiang in China. It was nephrite that the Chinese buyers originally sought, arguably beginning with the Qing Court developing a taste for jade, perhaps as a way of differentiating themselves from the preceding Ming Court’s attachment to rubies and sapphires. As the interest in jade developed, the Xinjiang nephrite jade was eventually eschewed in favour of the second variety. Jadeite has a brighter appearance, and is typically perceived as being more valuable. The best quality and largest quantity of jadeite in the world is found in the Kachin State, and it was there that the Chinese overland caravan route chose to divert to, after some decades of sourcing their jade from Xinjiang.

[related_article align="right" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Gambling for jade on the China-Myanmar border"]

It is from this point, the jade trading route began to take on a truly transnational flavour. From here, we see the origins of my first observation; that the jade narrative is not a story of two states, but rather the coming together of many more communities.

With the closure of mainland China’s borders to outside trade in 1949, the route diverted south to Rangoon along the railway line, and then by ship to Hong Kong. In 1962, on the advent of Ne Win’s Way to Socialism, the route changed again. The caravan route, distinctly Yunnanese in its character, added some extra turns and detours around known military areas, and the entire route became peppered with bribes and shifting personal alliances, to allow the passage of some of the goods to eager markets in Thailand. It is worth noting that during the period of Burma’s ‘closure’ to outside trading between 1962-1988, black market trading thrived, and some argue even sustained the Burmese economy.

These historical quirks, where the tide of national politics caused kinks and curves in the route, sought to entrench the route into its current form, spanning Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Laos. The current route has been identified as originating from the mines surrounding Hpakant, Kachin State, transported to the nearest train station (Mogaunt, Sarhmaw, or Hopin), and then on to Mandalay. From Mandalay, it crosses over to Taunggyi, in the Shan State. From Taunggyi, the jade is conveyed through the rebel zones to either Kengtung or Tachilek. At these points the caravans will either turn north towards markets in southern China, or south, to Thailand and Laos.

The jade trade has played a fundamental role in defining the various ethnographic identities along its primary route. It is well established that ethnic groups typically converge around points of shared financial interest, and indeed jade has served as a meeting point for expressions of a diverse web of ethno-nationalisms. Wen-Chin Chang’s work has shown how ethnic groups have been defined by their particular roles in the jade route as it developed from the socialist era in Burma (1962-88) when jade was primarily traded on the black market. For instance, the Kachin became characterised as the stone suppliers, an expression which came to stand for an industrious attitude, an extensive knowledge of terrain, and resilience for handling the dangers of mining jade. The Yunnanese, the caravan traders, became eponymous for the accompanying risk-taking behavior, economic acumen, and aptitude to navigate a complex web of language and culture.

Flowing on from my first point is a second observation, that of the interplay between regional armies, and the operation of the jade trade that they seek to protect. Because the zone of jade trading has been marketed by a connection of otherwise discretely administered ethno-cultural centres; Kachins in Hpakant, Burmans in Mandalay, Shans in Taunggyi, Kengtung, and Tachilek, Sino-Thais and Thais in Chiang Mai, and Yunnanese in Kunming, the role of an army has been a practical means to demarcate landscapes of power as the jade shifts along different stages of the regional production line. These cause considerable problems for the tatmadaw, a so-called umbrella force of authority, existing in a zone were micro-community and personal relationships influence how the society functions.

Owing to the overlapping nature of interests and claims in the area, local armies have been instrumental to the flow of jade from the early days of the Kachin mines. The mines themselves have been traditionally guarded by Kachin armies since the colonial era. When the jade trade went underground in the socialist era, the four main jade companies each had their own private army. Notably, the Lijia Company, established in 1973 in Chiang Mai, was founded by the leader of the KMT Third Army, General Li, and pursued connections with local militias in the border trade. The Zhangjia Company, established in 1974 by the Shan warlord Khun Sa, served as a lucrative source of funds for the Shan independence army at the time and a strategic institutional support for Khun Sa’s involvement in the heroin trade. These examples support the theoretical work of Kerkvliet and Scott, who argue that economic opportunity drives the persistence of individuals to engage in commerce despite technical illegality. Further, it illustrates Tagliacozzo’s thesis that enhanced forces of state regulation tends to merely encourage expressions of active trade in contraband.

So what does all this tell us? The jade story is older, and richer than it appears at first glance. Is it merely a tale of Beijing and Naypyitaw? Certainly not. Will the illegal shades of activity continue to thrive? Unquestionably yes. Does the state have any control over this long-established community of individuals? We will have to wait and see.

These ideas pay homage to a far more elegantly constructed work which I heartily recommend a thorough read of.

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