Life Lessons Learned from China's Master Jade-carvers

When I was young, I couldn't wait to grow up. I looked forward to the future, knowing that my whole life was ahead of me and that there was so much to learn. With the high spirits of an adventurer, I was always ready to explore what was coming my way.

It takes years of living to realize the value of the past. After decades of always looking ahead, I am now starting to treasure the nostalgia of being pulled back in time to find new meaning in events from the past.

Lately, I've been thinking about the times when I took American tourists to a jade-carving workshop in Shanghai, and how the artisans there started every project with a unique piece of natural stone, varied in shape and color, and eventually transformed it into a special piece of art.

Some of these valuable stones were smaller than a fist, while others were as large as boulders. Using their trained eyes, the workers envisioned what they were inspired to create before carefully marking out pencil guide lines. Rough shapes were cut before fine details were finally chiseled out.

Every time I took a tour group there, I could see the progress each worker had made, from the initial examination and understanding of a rough stone to the final polishing of a finished piece. Some projects took months to finish, testing their patience and tenacity.

One could often tell how talented sculptors were by the way they incorporated the varied stone colors into their designs. Sometimes I saw a layer of pale green on a dark piece of jade perfectly made into foamy waves. At other times, I watched as spots of discoloration were turned into the centers of flowers, or decorative hairpins in an ancient lady's hair.

Once, I stood in awe as a master magically transformed a dark flaw on a piece slated to become a carp, a Chinese symbol of luck, into its eye. The fish instantly jumped to life. But how did he know that would be the exact spot where an eye was to be set? Had he used this piece of stone for a different purpose, what could have become of that discoloration?

As I let my mind roam, it suddenly occurred to me that even the most perfect stone is never perfect. And, the same can be said of us human beings. Our idiosyncrasies are like specks of discoloration on stones. Sometimes they may be buried beneath the surface only to be discovered later on. We can either work with our unique selves and even benefit from them, or let them ruin our lives.

Truthfully, whether to call ourselves inherently flawed or one-of-a-kind individuals may just be a matter of perspective. How well we understand ourselves may be the secret to carving out our successful lives, like a master jade-maker, transforming not-so-perfect qualities into something extraordinary – like the eye on that magical carp.

Reflections From The East Column:

By Qin Sun Stubis

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