The Son of Heaven was the formal title of Emperors in Imperial China. One such Son of Heaven was Qianlong (1711-1799), the fifth Manchu Emperor. He had a number of wives and a multitude of concubines but the woman he loved most was his first consort, the Empress Xiao Xian. She was a lovely, caring and virtuous woman who died early at 36 after a sudden illness.

Like Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor of India, the loss of his beloved devastated Qianlong. Unlike Shah Jahan's Taj Mahal mausoleum, Xiao Xian was buried in a lavish subterranean tomb complete with jade flowers, her body encased in a cinnabar box. A prolific poet, he composed poems to the love of his life whenever he visited her tomb, placing the lacquer plaques in her Spirit Hall.

After her death, he transferred his feelings and capacity to love deeply to jade, a gemstone whilst cold and hard, also embodies human-like qualities such as beauty, virtue, nobility and purity. It was as if jade represented his lost love. He slept on a jade bed, ate from jade dinnerware, wrote poetry about jade with a jade handled brush and a jade ink pot. In short, everything that could be made of jade or inset with jade, was indeed made so for him.

He went to great lengths to find and secure Burmese supplies of jadeite or imperial jade that the Chinese call fei cui or kingfisher (feathers) jade and prized above nephrite, the other kind of jade. The difficult military campaigns to obtain the gemstone drained his treasury and cost the lives of thousands of his finest soldiers. Supplies were eventually secured through a ceasefire in exchange for trade.

Painting : The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback, 1739 or 1758 by Giuseppe Castiglione (Chinese name Lang Shining). Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing.

Wikipedia : Qianlong
Wikipedia : Xiao Xian
A. Levy and C. Scott-Clark (2001). The Stone of Heaven: The Secret History of Imperial Green Jade. Orion Books Ltd.