A Brief History of Chinese Stone Appreciation
By Thomas S. Alias
China is currently experiencing its Third "Golden Age" of stone appreciation. This time, however, the appreciation is at a scale never before seen in the thousand-plus years that people have been collecting stones solely for their beauty and interest. Today several million Chinese collect stones, hundreds of thousands of others are engaged in some capacity related to the commercialization of these stones. Major commercial centers exist in Liuzhou in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Kunming in Yunnan Province, and Alashan in inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, while dozens of smaller centers can be found in major cities throughout China. In fact, it is difficult to find a majority city that does not have at least one significant stone gallery. More than one hundred major international and national stone exhibitions are held each year, and new books on various aspects of stone appreciation are published regularly. However, the world of modern stone appreciation in China is quite different from that of the first golden age, which occurred from the eighth to the thirteenth century during the late Tang and early Song dynasties, when unusual or fantastic stones were largely the domain of poets, calligraphers, bureaucrats and other literati. Today modern business people and investors have largely replaced the poets, painters and writers of past days as purchasers and connoisseurs of the extraordinary stones. Modern museums devoted to stone appreciation have largely replaced the private gardens and homes of the educated in dynasties as holders of major collections. In order to understand why so many people in China are embracing viewing stones today, we must look to the past.
Stones have been collected and valued for their beauty for perhaps five thousand years or more in China. Agates, calcite, jade, nephrite and opals have been found in caves that served as homes to people of the Stone Age. Small colorful agates and opals were recovered from burial sites four thousand to five thousand years old near Nanjing in Jiangsu Province. These stones, known as rain flower pebbles (yu hushi), were incorporated into the culture of this region. It is not surprising that people were attracted to rare, unusual colorful stones. However, this attraction alone is inadequate to explain the important role that certain stones have played in Chinese arts and culture from the Tang dynasty to modern times. The likely explanation for the popularity of stones in China includes the contributions from philosophies and religions and the equally important personal commitments of many individuals in positions of leadership.
Philosophical and Religious Influences
China possesses some of the world's most remarkable mountain ranges, rivers, canyons and other landscape features. It is well known for its amazing karst topography, which results from water dissolving soft sedimentary rock, typically calcium-carbonate-based types like limestone and dolomite, leaving behind the often vertically oriented harder rock. The countries varied and beautiful natural scenery has long been noted and respected by the people. The major philosophies that emerged in China were closely attuned to this scenery and its features. From them came a deep respect, even reverence, for certain mountain ranges and individual and unusual rock formations found in the different mountains. This can also be found in early classic literature such as The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a compendium of mythology, natural history, people and various beliefs about ancient China. It was compiled between the Warring States period (475221 BCE) and the Western dynasty (206260).