A 200-year-old intricately carved "jade mountain" of emerald-green Burmese jade - a half-ton piece of statuary - has been unearthed in Jiangsu province and astonished experts say it rivals similar jade mountains in the Palace Museum.
In fact, they believe it was part of an emperor's collection in Beijing and was somehow lost.
The massive single piece of jade measures 98cm by 115cm and depicts the Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, a famous scene in Chinese mythology.
Mystery surrounds the enormous decoration standing on an ornately carved pedestal, found by accident during the renovation of a private house in Shengze Town in Wujiang City. No one knows who made it or under what circumstances, but geologists categorize it as emerald jade from Myanmar.
There are only known to be around 10 such extraordinary "jade mountain" artworks in China, mostly collected by royal families, "which makes this new discovery more precious," says Zhang Minghua, a renowned expert on ancient jade from Shanghai East China University of Science and Technology.
Spectacular and often magical jade mountains (yu shan zi) often appear in kung fu stories, but are rarely seen in the real world. Ancient literati, nobility and wealthy merchants placed small jade decorative items in their studies and homes. Jade, which symbolizes purity and nobility, is said to bring luck.
Only emperors could afford massive jade mountains.
The most famous one titled "King Yu Combating the Flood" is displayed at the Palace Museum in Beijing. It weighs about 2,650kg.
News of another jade mountain was greeted by skepticism.
"At first, I refused to even take a look, since I thought it was almost impossible to find a jade mountain outside the palace," Zhang says. "But they called me several times and I thought at least I would let them know that it cannot be a real one."
The probability of finding another jade mountain is practically zero, he says.
For example, "King Yu Combating the Flood" took several years to complete (including carving and transporting it to Beijing).
"At that time there were no roads in the mountains where the jade mountain was discovered, so workers had to wait for winter when the mud froze, so that the piece could slide down," Zhang says.
He was thrilled to discover that the jade mountain statuary in Jiangsu Province was equal to that in the imperial collection.
The three-dimensional carving on this mountain depicts the Eight Immortals in meticulous detail against an exotic landscape of mountains, trees, pavilions, bridges, staircases and grottoes. Each is transported over the sea, carrying a different object, a fan, a cane, a sword, and so on.
The multidimensional work reflects craftsmanship of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), according to Zhang who sees similarities with the craftsmanship from Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province.
"The difficulty for the craftsmen is not to waste any material and utilize every bit. Thus it would be a challenge for them to carve recognizable subjects in the stone," Zhang says. "See, there are staircases and even caves in this pieces. It's very subtle and intricate."
Zhang asked his study team from the Shanghai university to slice a small sample for evaluation. The results indicate that the jade comes from Myanmar and is categorized as emerald-green.
"I am now working with my team to find out its origin, its previous owner, where it was carved and how it came to be lost outside the palace," Zhang says. "We are trying to unveil the mystery of this jade mountain."