History of Stone Appreciation in China

The study of stone appreciation in China is a complex task; it involves many interrelated factors over a 4,000 year period. The respect and in some cases even reverence, for mountains, rocks and individual stones that reflect the influence of mythology, philosophy, and religion. While growing numbers of detailed studies are being published in China, there are also current ongoing investigations that will yield additional information. We will attempt to keep our readers informed about the latest findings.

New Stone Age

Scholars of Chinese stone appreciation often point to the New Stone Age as the embryonic stages in the history of collecting and valuing stones as objects of beauty. Agates, calcite, jade, nephrite, opal and other stones have been found in caves where people lived during the Stone Age. While it would be logical to assume that some of these stones served purely utilitarian purposes, it would be nearly impossible to determine if perhaps at least some of them were gathered and kept simply because of their beauty and aesthetic appeal. Small colorful stones were used as funeral objects and buried with the dead. Jade objects, used in various capacities, are well-documented in many early Chinese archeological sites.

One of the best documented examples of early stone appreciation in ancient China is a small colorful stone--rain flower pebble. Rain flower pebbles (yuhuashi,  雨花石) , small colorful agates, were recovered from burial sites during the excavation of the 4,000 to 5,000 year-old Beijinyangying Culture near Nanjing in Jiangsu Province. The rain flower pebbles that were recovered are preserved and displayed in the Nanjing City Museum.

Classical Period (700-220 BC)

This period in Chinese history was a time of political upheavals systems and civil wars. During the early stages known as the Spring and Autumn Periods (770-476 BC), feudal lords used their armies to expand their territories. This was followed by the Warring States Period (475—221 BC) when only seven major and powerful lords remained. This period ended when the Ch’in lord defeated the others and reunited China.

The Classical period was notable in Chinese stone appreciation history because it was also the time that many of China’s great philosophers lived. Among them, two had a significant influence on stone culture—Laozi (Laotzu, 老子) and Confucius(孔子).

Laozi is considered to be the founder of the Taoism philosophy. Prior to his time of enlightenment, he held a minor government post, during which he travelled to the western frontier and disappeared. He wrote a 5,000 word treatise that became known as the Tao-te-cheng or the first text of Taoism. Laozi understood the natural way of things and lived in harmony with nature, which was the basis of his philosophy. His philosophy appealed to many people attempting to understand basic natural structures including mountains, unique natural stone formations, and eventually individual fantastic stones.

Confucius (551-479 BC), a lower to mid-level bureaucrat like Laozi, is best known as a teacher, philosopher, and writer. His moral and ethical teachings had a profound impact on Chinese culture. He emphasized strong family ties, ancestor worship, and civility in everyday life and in government. After leaving government service, Confucius travelled extensively in northeastern and central China to teach his philosophy. He authored and edited many classical books. According to Shou (2007), Confucius compared a gentleman’s virtues to jade. Confucius claimed that benevolent men love mountains, while wise men love water.

The teachings of Laozi and Confucius as well as their disciples help promote a culture of respect and admiration for mountains, rivers, and other natural objects. They provided a framework that would influence people for generations and, even today, aspects of their teachings are evident in modern Chinese society.

Two important classical works in Chinese literature that contain minor references to early stone appreciation appeared during this time-- The Classic of Mountain and Seas (Shanhai jing) and the Book of Historical Documents (Shangshu).

The Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经)or Shan Hai Jing, a major reference to Chinese mythology and a treasure trove of information about natural history, medicine, rituals, and mythological creatures, was published sometime between the early 3rd century BC and the earliest centuries AD. This compendium of the world is divided into 18 books and describes 447 mountains, many rivers, and some minerals and rocks. This work includes the earliest written reference to colorful stones (caishi, 彩石) in Book Two—Classic of Western Mountains, beautiful stones (meishi, 美石) in Book Four—Classic of Eastern Mountains; and pattern stones (wenshi, 纹石) in Book Five—The Classic of Central Mountains. The first five chapters also contain references to green jasper, bright blue jade, bloodstone, and fine stones.  This work was attributed to multiple authors and was likely compiled over several centuries. The Book of Historical Documents (尚书,书经) or Shangshu, appeared during the Warring States period (475-221 BC), used the term “unusual stone” is used for the first time. The term appears in reference to the valley of Mount Tai, an area of natural springs, pine trees, and unusual stones (guaishi, 怪石).


The Six Dynasties Period (220-589 AD)

The Six Dynasties consist of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD), the Jin (265-420 AD), and the Southern and Northern (420-589 AD). This was a time of civil wars and chaos; but, an important time in the history of Chinese poetry. During this time, many well-educated people left their civil service position and retreated into the mountains or woodlands seeking seclusion from the strife of everyday city life. Some of these officials turned to writing poetry in their isolation and giving raise to the genre of “field and garden” poetry. Nature was featured, especially that found in gardens, courtyards, fields and orchards. Tao Yuanming (365-427 AD) was one poet of this time that rose to national prominence and is still revered today. His poetry featured farm life, aspects of nature, and drinking. Tao had a great fondness for stones, and one of his favorites was large flattened stone in his backyard that he called “drunk stone.” Whenever Tao became inebriated, he would go to his backyard and lie on this stone. He even wrote the poem “Drunken Stone.”  Qing dynasty poet, Yuan Mei, wrote about Tao’s stones. Yuan stated that “Master Tao has a marvelous stone; it was taken from a forest. Thousands of years later someone got it, its charm is still as before.”   Since Tao loved nature and stones, he is regarded by some scholars as one of the founders of stone appreciation in China. This may have been the beginning of the association of drinking with certain larger stones. This has been depicted by later artists and poets.

Not all Chinese scholars agree that Tao Yuanming was an early founder of stone appreciation. He Lin, in an article published in a 2011 issue of Baozang magazine voiced his disagreement with this interpretation. He contends that even though Tao wrote “Drunken Stone”, he was referring to an ordinary large stone used during his drinking bouts and was not referring to a decorative stone.

Evidence that unusual stones were valued during this period comes from a tombstone found in Qingzhou in Shangdong Province that shows a person carrying a tray with a highly irregular stone with several holes. The scene is thought to represent trade negotiations. It is attributed to the Northern Qi (550-577 AD) of the Six Dynasties.

(To be continued in future monthly updates)


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