Ex-diplomat turns jade-collecting hobby into life-long pursuit

"Being a diplomat means you have to be well-aware of your country's historic heritage so that you can better promote it overseas," Francias Lee (???), a retired Taiwanese diplomat, told CNA during an interview in December.

It was for this reason that Lee, a former ambassador to The Gambia and one of the very few Taiwanese diplomats to have been posted in all five continents during his 30-plus-year career, began to delve into the world of jade collecting in the early days of his diplomatic career.

What began as a hobby has turned into a lifelong pursuit.

Now, 30 years later, Lee has become known as a serious jade collector. He has written a book on Chinese jade and has been invited by local jade-collection societies to give lectures.

With more than 1,000 pieces of antique jades in his collection, some of which might be worth a fortune, Lee, however, said that as a true jade lover, he cares nothing about the financial worth of his collection.

Lee said he began to acquire knowledge about Chinese artifacts back in 1974 in South Africa following an encounter with a South African lady who visited the Republic of China Embassy in Johannesburg, according to Lee. She brought with her an ancient Chinese flower vase with some Chinese characters on it.

"The lady asked me if I knew anything about the vase, whether it was ancient or relatively new, but I wasn't able to give her an answer," Lee said.

"This came as a shock to me, and prompted me to learn more about Chinese artifacts," he went on.

As an ethnic Chinese, Lee considered it his duty as an ROC diplomat to have more understanding about Chinese culture and artifacts, to help him promote his country and its culture worldwide.

He began as an ardent collector of stamps before he fell in love with jade.

Why jade?

According to Lee, ethnic Chinese are one of the peoples around the world that have loved the precious stone for thousands of years. Jade is closely interwoven with the Chinese people.

Also, jade is easier to collect because the pieces are generally small and easy to carry around.

Interestingly, his first two jade items were acquired not in Taiwan but in Australia, during his posting there in 1992.

They are a jade hand fan handle from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and a "Bi" (?), a type of circular ancient Chinese jade artifact from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Both were acquired at very cheap prices from an antique shop near Canberra. "I remember I bought them for just A$500," he said.

The jade fan handle has since become his favorite, which he still carries with him all the time.

Two years later, Lee came back to Taipei to serve as head of the ministry's Department of European Affairs. To get closer to jade, he chose to live in the ministry's dormitory, which is close to the famous Jianguo Holiday Jade Market.

He would spend almost all of his weekends at the market buying jade artifacts while learning about jade from the vendors.

"I spent almost all of my salary buying jade," he said.

That was when he became fully devoted to the hobby at a time that Taiwan's antique market was at its best.

Following the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the other side of the Taiwan Strait from 1966 to 1976, a large number of Chinese artifacts and jade items came to Taiwan.

Jade thumb rings and snuff bottles

Like most Chinese jade collectors, he has since been focused on collecting jade thumb rings and snuff bottles.

A thumb ring is a piece of equipment designed to protect the thumb during archery, while snuff bottles were used to contain powdered tobacco. Both were widely popular during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

He put a special focus in collecting thumb rings and even wrote a book on the study of them, which he believes is one of the first books in the world devoted fully to the jade thumb ring.

Lee said that for thousands of years, the Chinese have venerated the stone, believing that it brings serenity, peace of mind and protection.

They maintain that jade has the power to ward off evil and, in accidents, to absorb all bodily harm.

This might sound superstitious, but Lee said he believes there is some psychological factor in such belief.

"Once you carry a jade item or wear a jade artifact, you will try to behave more carefully in order to protect the fragile stone," he continued.

"In this way you will also be more careful in protecting yourself, thus leading to the belief that wearing jade serves as protection from evil spirits."

Aside from being an antique collector, Lee is also specialized in playing the game of bridge, ballroom dancing and even served as head of several of the foreign ministry's sports clubs when he was a diplomat.

To Lee, all of these hobbies are important for a diplomat, as they have the additional benefit of acting as conversation topics when engaging in small talk with people from around the globe.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel