A short tale of jade and semiconductors

Taiwan's trading prowess is no recent accomplishment. Neolithic seafarers spread the island's baubles far and wide.

By Andrew Leonard
November 28, 2007 4:00PM (UTC)
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Taiwanese exports rose sharply in October, reports the Financial Times. The key statistic: While exports to the U.S. grew a "modest" 6.6 percent, exports to China grew 28.8 percent.

Some of those exports are electronic parts -- semiconductors, LCD screens, etc -- that are assembled into complete devices in China and then reexported to the U.S. or elsewhere. But a significant portion appears to be directly satisfying domestic Chinese demand.


For Taiwan, a trading nation, any sign that its economy may be "decoupling" from the United States could be good news, as recession storm clouds continue to gather State-side. As FT's Kathryn Hille speculates, "The island's export performance could therefore provide a relatively accurate indicator to what extent Asian demand is buffering a U.S. downturn."

How the World Works guesses that whichever way the global economy winds blows, Taiwan will find a way. A recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some archaeological support. Using X-ray spectrometry to analyze 144 jade earrings and other baubles found in sites throughout Southeast Asia dating as far back as 3000 B.C., researchers at Australian National University discovered that 116 of the jade trinkets could be traced back to a single jade mine in Fengtian, Taiwan. (Thanks to Michael Turton for the tip.)

Odds and ends of Fengtian jade were found at several sites in the Philippines, Thailand and southern Vietnam, which the lead researcher Hung Hsiao-chun said may have been workshops. "Fengtian jade was shipped to these workshops in southeast Asia, which dated from 500 B.C. to 100 AD. They were very small and they churned out these ornaments that were then exported to other places," said Hung...

Prior to this period, however, Taiwan's jade ornaments were likely to have been crafted back home in Fengtian.

"There was a very huge workshop in Fengtian, dating back to 3,000 B.C.," Hung said, adding that one of the earliest pieces of Fengtian jade found in the Philippines dates back to 2,000 B.C..

"Before, researchers thought all the jade in the Philippines was from China or Vietnam. With our analysis ... we found that most of the ornamental jade in the Philippines was from Taiwan..."

"Their seafaring methods must have been very superior, even back then," Hung said.

From neolithic jade earrings to state-of-the-art semiconductors. Once a trading nation, always a trading nation.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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