Jade has been valued since time immemorial in China for its beauty and purity. A well-known story recorded by the Legalist Chinese philosopher Han Fei Zi alludes to these qualities as it tells of the He Shi Bi (和氏璧), the jade disc discovered by a man named He Bian.
He Bian was from Chu State and lived during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 B.C.). It was said that he extracted a piece of jade ore from the mountains of Chu, and offered it as a gift to King Li.
But when the king sent for specialists to appraise the ore, they told him that it was nothing more than rock. King Li took He Bian for a cheat and had his left foot cut off.
Upon King Li’s death, his son King Wu ascended to the throne. Determined to offer his treasure to the ruler, He Bian again presented the jade ore to the king, but the result was no different: King Wu thought He Bian was lying and this time had his right foot cut off as punishment.
Finally, King Wu died and was succeeded by King Wen of Chu. This time, a dispirited He Bian removed himself to the mountains and wept. For three days, he lamented so bitterly that when he had no more tears to cry, what came out of his eyes was blood.
King Wen heard of the matter, and dispatched a messenger to meet He Bian: “Many people have been punished by having their limbs cut off. Why is it that you alone weep so sorrowfully?”
“It is not having my feet cut off that pains me,” He Bian responded. “What is truly tragic is that a piece of fine jade is taken for a rock and that a pure and honest man is accused of being a liar. For this I weep.”
King Wen ordered He’s ore to be refined and extracted the treasure within. The jade was made into a disc called a bi and was thereafter known as the He Shi Bi in honor of the man who discovered it.
The He Shi Bi became a famous treasure of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States eras. It featured as a prominent article of diplomacy between the states of Qin and Zhao toward the end of the period, being the subject of an idiom “the jade is returned intact to Zhao.” (完璧歸趙)
When Qin finally conquered Zhao and the other five states of China, the He Shi Bi was made into the First Emperor’s imperial seal and was engraved with the words: “Having received the Mandate of Heaven, may the emperor enjoy prosperity and longevity.” (受命於天，既壽永昌)