VSANA Featured Article 专题

Articles on stone appreciation by Thomas S Elias and other authors are available from the VSANA Article Archives categorized by year. See list on the right for links to each article.

The Concept of “Dongtian” in Chinese Stone Appreciation

By Tom Elias

We often read that Taoism and Buddhism have influenced viewing stone appreciation, but we are seldom given specific examples. Here, we discuss one example of the influence of Taoist beliefs on viewing stone culture. Certain connoisseurs of traditional Chinese viewing stones are attracted to certain stones more than other stones. One form that is especially appealing is an abstract shape or a rugged, somewhat vertically oriented mountain stone with one or more caves or naturally formed spaces that lead upward to an arch. The vertically oriented gray Chinese Lingbi stone shown with this article is a good example, giving the impression of a passageway  that penetrates the mountain. Stones found in Japan and other countries can posses these features. Note the reddish more horizontally oriented stone from Hokkaido and its irregular pathway that leads up to the arch and passageway in the back of the stone.



Serious students of Chinese stone appreciation who have a knowledgeable of the literature and history of China quickly associate this stone form with the concept of “Dongtian” in Taoist literature and beliefs. Taoism or Daoism is uniquely Chinese in origin. In Taoist literature Dongtian is a region where heaven and earth meet—the world of immortals. This place consists of 10 large Dongtian and 36 smaller Dongtian. Literally, the word Dongtian in Taoist beliefs means the caverns or tunnels high in the mountains that reach the sky. The Dongtian are places where heaven and earth touched and served as passageways between the Earth and heavenly places. The heavenly group of  immortals live in the 10 largest Dongtian. The 36 small Dongtian are linked to the belief that the universe is divided into 36 layers of heaven and infinity. Entrances to these 36 distinct and varied worlds are via the small Dongtian. The smaller stone featured as the “Stone of the Month” represents one of a small Dongtian. A possible example of a large Dongtian can be found in Zhangiajie City in western Hunan Province. The highest natural arch named  “Gateway to Heaven” or “Tianmen Cave” forms an opening in the mountains and to reach the gateway one has to climb 999 steps.

The origin of the Dongtian concept of a heavenly place dates back to the early Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 AD) when scholars of that time were trying to explain the physical features of their world. Their limited scientific knowledge was often combined with religious beliefs to explain the universe as they knew it. Taoism began as philosophical teachings that eventually developed into a religion. Basically, the goal was for people to live in harmony with the Tao or “the way.” In other words, the goal was to seek to live in harmony with nature. This aspect of Tao beliefs appeals to informed stone collectors. Many serious stone collectors want to live in harmony with nature, so it is not surprising to see their most precious stones directly associated with the Dongtian aspect of Taoism. .

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