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Shoushan Stone Carvings: a Great Folk Craftmanship in Fujian



There is a huge contrast between the eternity of stone and the transience of life. Human beings, recognizing and honoring the resilience of stone have, since ancient times, fashioned works of art from it.

3,600 kilometers off the coast of Chile lay an island, floating in the sea like an abandoned boat. This is Easter Island, where at sunset every day, a series of sculptures impose their distinctive outlines on the grassland. These are the so-called moai, for which Easter Island is famous. Rising between 5 and 10 meters, each weighs dozens of tons. Most surprising are the giant stone hats some of them wear, weighing as much as 20 tons.

A statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom and protector of Athens in Greek mythology, used to dominate the main hall at the Parthenon. 13 meters high, the statue was made of silver-white marble. Sadly, it was destroyed at the time of the Byzantine Empire. The Athena now on display at the Parthenon is a duplicate in miniature. The goddess is dressed in a helmet and one-piece dress. Her breastplate and weapons are decorated with human figures and have zigzagging edges. Her figure is redolent of maternal gentleness and steadfastness.

In China, there are stone carvings as huge as the 71-metre Leshan Giant Buddha and others as small as handicrafts for people to carry with them. The handicrafts are popular among collectors because they can be appreciated close-up. Because of this, they would appear to have much greater artistic value.

The stone carvings, which vary in their style and appearance, have an appealing translucent quality. Admirers find it hard to resist picking them up to examine them. Such close examination reveals something remarkable; the stone of which they are all made comes from the same origin. That place is Shoushan in Fujian Province.

Stone deposits are concentrated near the mountains and streams that surround Shoushan Village, in the northern suburbs of Fuzhou. They extend from Qishan in the west as far as the border with Lianjiang County in the east, and from Dunyang in the north to Yueyang in the south. They occupy a region that is notable for its pleasant landscapes and agreeable climate.

During the Jurassic Period, over 150 million years ago, a violent volcanic eruption devastated this region. Lava poured down the mountains and was turned into volcanic rock. However, this lava was special C it was rich in acid gas. It mixed with the underground water and minerals. Together they formed a hot liquid that oozed out through the cracks between the rocks. This boiling liquid was deposited on the nearby rocks, where it crystallized and finally formed natural mineral veins.

In the course of the next tens of thousands of years, the rains and floods carried these rocks to the riverbanks and fields. There, with time, they were submerged into the soil, where they were turned into precious stones. These are what we know today as Shoushan Stones.

Shoushan Stones, in terms of their moisture content, are the rival of jade. But unlike jade, they embody a unique spectrum of rich natural colors.

So, following their prolonged birth, how were these precious stones first discovered?

During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, in the 5th and 6th centuries, some monks from a temple in the remote mountains of Fujian, chanced upon the stones. The monks decide to make gifts out of the stones in honor of the Buddha, which they would give away to pilgrims. So the stones were fashioned into prayer beads and Buddhist statues. With time, more and more pilgrims began coming, hoping to be given one of these precious gifts.

The Shoushan Stone Pig dates from the Southern Dynasties, some 1,500 years ago. It was produced as a burial object. Its simple lines and carving reveal how basic were stone-working techniques at the time. Even so, such works marked the beginning of the tradition of Shoushan Stone Carving.

Shoushan Stones, depending on where they come from, fall into three categories. Shankeng Stones come from mountains, Shuikeng Stones from water, and Tiankeng Stones form paddy fields. The most precious of the Shoushan Stones are Tianhuang Stones, which belong to the category of Tiankeng Stones.

The story goes that the Qing Emperor Qianlong, who reigned in the 18th century, had a dream in which he was summoned by the Jade Emperor, who gave him a yellow stone. When he awoke, the emperor decided that the dream had been propitious. But he could not work out its exact meaning.
So he summoned his advisers and asked them to interpret the dream. An official from Fujian insisted there was no doubt that the stone must have been a Tianhuang Stone from Shoushan in Fujian. Qianlong was delighted to hear this, and he ordered that a Tianhuang Stone be placed at the center of the altar when he made his annual sacrifices to Heaven.

A saying goes: "Tianhuang Stone is ten times as precious as gold", which is testimony to the stone's great value.

The color yellow stands for luck and fortune in Chinese culture. It used to be reserved for imperial use only. So, the color of Tianhuang Stones qualified them as the king of stones.

In fact, Tianhuang Stones were created through a more complex process than other Shoushan Stones. Initially, volcanic eruptions produced mineral veins on the mountains. Pieces of stone subsequently fell from the rocks into the water. Rubbed smooth by the current, they were eventually deposited in paddy fields, where they were buried a few meters down. There they remained, protected in the warm soil for tens of thousands of years, incorporating various minerals and microelements. In the course of this they developed their three unique features: a stone crust, carroty texture and red veins.

Stone Crust: Tianhuang Stones have a yellow or black crust of varying thickness. Thinner crusts can be removed easily in the course of carving and polishing.

Carroty Texture: Observing a Tianhuang Stone in strong sunlight reveals a faint and tight texture, like the fibers in a carrot.

Red Veins: Closer observation also reveals thin red veins. They are sometimes described as a blood-shot texture, because the color so closely resembles blood. The red comes from iron oxide in the soil.

These three features indicate the great age and value of Tianhuang Stones.

Shoushan Stone Carvings are rare artistic products of both natural and human craft. The carvings generally belong to three categories: for display, for use, and for appreciation. Products for display are usually designed to be exhibited on a desk. Products for use, meaning almost exclusively seals, are the most common. Products for appreciation are small handicrafts originally designed to be carried and enjoyed by men of letters. This category is probably the most interesting. The archaic designs, the carving and the broad smooth surfaces reveal the moisture that is the essence of Shoushan Stone, and as such provide the greatest pleasure.

The wide-scale excavation of Shoushan Stones for making handicrafts dates from the Song Dynasty, a thousand years ago. The finest products were presented to the imperial court in the capital, Bianliang, which is today Kaifeng in Henan Province.

It was in the Song Dynasty that delicate Shoushan Stone Carvings were first produced for appreciation. Larger pieces were exhibited on tables, and smaller ones were carried with them by men of letters.

The practice of making seals from Shoushan Stone dates from the Yuan Dynasty, seven hundred years ago.

Seals are made in various shapes. They can be square, oval, round, or any number of other shapes. The most common Shoushan stone-carved seals are square.

With time, the seals were given decorative grips. Strings or knots would be attached to these grips, to make the seals easier to carry. Although initially the grips were added for purely practical reasons, they later became decorative. For example, they would be carved with animal heads, most often the heads of lions and tigers, although dragon, phoenix, turtle, bear and other heads were not uncommon.

A seal forms part of the Emblem of the Beijing Olympic Games. Seals, as a unique Chinese symbol, stand for honesty and credibility. The emblem of the Chinese Seal, Dancing Beijing brings together the traditional culture of the seal and the Olympic spirit. It also symbolizes the continuation of the spiritual civilization of mankind.

But seals and grips were not all that were carved form Shoushan Stone. There were bigger pieces, too.

The carving is 52 cm tall, 45 cm wide and 17 cm deep. It weighs 35 kilos. It is called the Shoushan Stone Sages.

Shoushan Stone is extremely vulnerable to heat and dryness. So it must be kept in humid conditions.

Moreover, it must not be left in the open air for too long. A dark, humid cellar is an ideal place for keeping it. And in order to keep the stone moist, cold water must be sprayed over it from time to time.

When cracking the stone's surface, wet sawing and grinding techniques must be used to prevent the stone itself from breaking up. Cold water should be applied, if the stone becomes too hot.

The rough stones are peeled and cleaned, and then they are sorted, according to their origins, qualities and sizes. Bigger, rough ones are kept in wooden cases and left in a humid, dark environment. Higher-quality stones are immersed in vegetable oil in porcelain basins. However, if the stones are too big, more economical use of the vegetable oil can be made by brushing it over the stones, which are then wrapped in transparent paper, before being cosigned to a humid, dark environment.

A stone must be studied carefully, so as to choose an appropriate theme, style and technique for the carving, based on its shape, color and texture. This is a time-consuming process, in which the artisan uses all his experience and wisdom to come up with an artistic design.

"Proper study is half the success," is a saying among Shoushan stone carvers. They must take many factors into consideration. Each Shoushan Stone has a unique quality and form, which can be identified only through an artisan's careful examination.

And so, with a determination to pursue artistic perfection, the artisan begins to study the stone that will become Shoushan Stone Sages.

In Buddhism, the great sages are those who have reached enlightenment through meditation. They are famous mainly for the hardships they have endured.

The piece of Shoushan Stone has been chosen to portray the nine great sages because of its archaic quality, which makes it appropriate for portraying such prominent figures.

Studying a piece of stone is a highly demanding task. Take the second great sage on the stone, Asita , as an example. At the time of his birth, his mother dreamed she saw a great elephant entering their home. The sixth great sage is Nandimitra. He was the last disciple of the Buddha, and would carry a custom-made tower with him. So an elephant and a tower became the symbols of the two sages, and the craftsman must bear in mind, when studying the stone, that they must be incorporated.

Including so many figures and additional elements in the carving requires a perfect match between the concept and the design.

Modeling the Stone

At the modeling stage, the redundant parts of the stone are removed, leaving a rough model. The basic elements of the design are then carved onto it.

Circular engraver is a carving technique that allows the piece to be appreciated from every angle. It is the oldest and most basic skill in Shoushan Stone Carving.

For example, the old, sturdy pine in Shoushan Stone Sages has a genuinely three-dimensional effect.

Hammering the Stone

The rough model still needs to be hammered, a process that transforms the work from general to specific, from outward to inward. The various elements, including the general layout and outlines, as well as the cassocks of the nine great sages and other elements, are thus defined, ready for the refining process.

Refining the Stone

The refining is the last stage in the stone carving process.

A range of special knives are used in Shoushan Stone Carving. The chisel and refining knife, for example, are easy on the wrists and fingers and can be adapted to various uses.

A stone carver approaches the cutting at this stage with extreme care. The refining cutting must be firm and accurate. There are infinite variations, but they must serve specific effects. It is said that every cut is a reflection of its author's wisdom and affection.

Polishing the Stone

The carved stone still needs polishing. Done carefully, the polishing brings out the stone's unique characteristics and adds luster to its natural coloring.

Glutinous rice straw and equisetum grass collected from beside a river are used in the polishing. The rice straw is used in wet polishing and the grass in dry polishing. The polishing proceeds in three stages: rough polishing, fine polishing and final polishing. In this process, any remaining flaws in the stone can be covered up.

Waxing the Stone

To protect the stone after the polishing, a thin layer of wax is applied; with a mixture of 65% Sichuan white wax and 35% Northeast soft wax. In this process, the stone is first heated to between 100 and 150 and then the liquid wax is brushed thinly and evenly over it. Once it has cooled down, the stone is polished carefully with soft linen, until it shines.

Waxing brings out the texture and color of the stone. However, heating it reduces the moisture content quite significantly. Therefore, it is considered advisable not to wax the most precious Shoushan Stones.

Thanks to the skill and application of the craftsman, it is possible to appreciate the fine Shoushan Stone Sages.

Shoushan Stones often change color or crack during carving. If this happens, it becomes necessary to adjust the original design. So Shoushan Stone Carvings are a perfect combination of natural and human craft. The whole pieces of stone and their pure natural colors bear no human influence. But carved, they become unique handicrafts.

Alexander Hamilton is a stone lover. When he paid his first-ever visit to Fuzhou, he was astonished by the Shoushan Stones at Cangtianyuan.

There is a plan to establish a "Shoushan Stone City" in Chinatown in Texas, to give more people the opportunity to appreciate Shoushan stone carving. Thus, through the Shoushan Stones, traditional Chinese culture will be carried across the ocean.

Shoushan Stones bear a Chinese signature. They are a gift from nature. Out of gratitude, China's craftsmen have applied their rich wisdom to this gift, thus bridging the craft of Nature and of humans.