Initially thrilling and ultimately horrifying history of a precious and pernicious gemstone.
According to British journalists Levy and Scott-Clark, ever since jadeite, a gem the color of a kingfisher's neck feathers, was unearthed at its single source in northern Burma, it has left a wake of sorrow in its burn through history. The Stone of Heaven has stolen hearts, but mostly it seems to have stolen minds, for people have gone to outrageous ends to possess it. Much of this reads like a well-paced thriller. Kublai Khan set special store by the stone, which came from a smoky jungle rarely crossed by any but elephant trappers and was guarded by mythological creatures. Jadeite was coveted enough to start wars for control of its mines and it has never ceased to inspire greed and depravity. But the stone’s 20th-century history is less romantic and more sordid, with an array of sad-sack characters pursuing it: consider the “peanut-headed Sun Tzu scholar” Chiang Kai-shek, his dreadful and rapacious wife Madame Chiang, or the pathetic Barbara Hutton, all of whom found jadeite useful. The narrative becomes even more scarifying when the authors travel to present-day Hpakant, home of the mines in northern Burma. There they witness an appalling spectacle: barbaric mining conditions prompt rampant drug use by despairing miners who share needles and spread an HIV/AIDS epidemic among the local community of unprotected prostitutes. Neither the Burmese government nor the owners of the mines are interested in doing anything about the catastrophe other than exploiting it for jadeite production.
Levy and Scott-Clark carry a compelling story back from the depths of a true circle of hell.