Located in the mountainous northern suburbs of Fuzhou, capital city of Fujian province, the region known as Shoushan (Longevity mountains), with its peaks of over a thousand meters, is like a fairyland, charming and beautiful. Deposited within these mountains is a lovely and precious material—Shoushan stone. Treasured for its attractive colors and alluring textures, in appearance varying from the subtly exquisite to the dazzlingly gorgeous, this stone can be fashioned into objects ranging from the sublimely simple to the remarkably resplendent. Shoushan stone has long been cherished in China, especially by calligraphers (often also painters) involved in the creation of seals (a.k.a. “chops”). In “A Poem Celebrating Shoushan Stone,” Gao Shinong (1916–1988), an expert in seal cutting, praises its beauty across the millennia: “The excellent stone of Shoushan has the sleek quality of jade, / With magnificent color—blue-green, yellow, red and white. / Since the Southern Dynasties (420–589) it has been honored far and near / Both in seal carving and sculpture lapidary marvels have emerged.
Unique to the area, the Shoushan stone has a texture that resembles flowing water or a circling loop, with a smooth unctuous appearance. Geologically it is primarily quartz porphyry, volcanic breccia, and gritty sandstone. It is generally divided into three categories by its characteristics:
- Mountain-pit stone (Mountain stone): originating in the Shoushan peaks within the two mountain villages of Shoushan and Yueyang, its colors are brilliant and vivid. Varieties within this category are named after the places where they are found and/or a feature of that place or particularity of the stone itself. These include: after a pit the Ducheng-pit Stone; after a site the Laohu gang (Tiger hillock) Stone; after a mountain, the Furong shan (Hibiscus mountain) Stone; after a mountain ridge, the Jijiao ling (Rooster ridge) Stone; after a peak, the Jinshi feng (Golden lion peak) Stone; after a cliff, the Jiucha yan (Nine teas cliff) Stone or even after a quarryman as in the case Shanbo dong (Uncle Shan’s cave) Stone, his surname being Shan.
- Water-pit stone (Water stone): a large category of Shoushan Stone which originates in the area of Shoushan Creek, from the Shuijing Cave, Kengtou Cave, and Xizhong Cave etc.; mostly of dongshi (literally “frozen stone”) type; noteworthy varieties include: Shuijing (Crystal), Yunao (“Fish Brain”), and so on.
- Field-pit stone (Field stone): this possesses a warm character which is instantly charming ; sometimes transparent, sometimes translucent, with pale color in its interior and dark on the exterior. Varieties include: Huangtian Stone or Tianhuang Stone which can be translated as “Yellow Field Stone” or “Field Yellow Stone ”; Baitian Stone (White field stone), and Hongtian Stone (Red field stone”). The Huangtian Stone is found only below rice paddy fields situated along the banks of the Shoushan Creek rather than in a fixed place (such as a pit or cave) and thus is difficult to locate; its rarity is a contributing factor to the great value attached to this variety of Shoushan stone.
Though naturally attractive, it is only through the work of skilled craftspeople that the essential beauty, the quintessentially uplifting spirit of Shoushan Stone can be made fully clear. According to the History of Shoushan Stone Carving written by Pan Zhulan (1909–2001), the beginning of Shoushan stone carving can be traced as far back as the Southern Dynasties. Chinese lapidary artists based their work on the stones’ original shapes from which they extrapolated appropriate themes including: landscape, figures, birds and flowers, insects and fish, other animals such as horses, religious and supernatural subjects taken from Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism) and so forth. True artists, striving for perfection through careful carving and fine cutting, these were people who were able to not only reveal every facet of excellence within a piece of Shoushan stone, but also express their own spirituality in works which incarnate their own personal artistic vision.
Shoushan stone carving has seen numerous famous artists in its long history, who despite once have once having been divided into “Eastern” and “Western” schools of approach, the former emphasizing detailed verisimilitude, the latter expressive resemblance, they in the end both reached the same goal of creating brilliant art treasures by carrying forward their heritage and tradition. The craftsmanship of lapidary artists emerging in more modern times is in no way inferior to those of the past and their works have and continue to be greatly appreciated. Yang Xuan (fl. ca. seventeenth century), active during the reign of the of the Qing dynasty Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) is renowned for his superbly refined, but simple carving technique. In particular his Shoushan stone animals—horses, oxen, and tigers demonstrate his considerable artistry, one that is comparable to that of ancient masters. Moreover, to further confirm his artistic standing, among his other Shoushan stone creations are such renowned ones as the “Luohan [Vajaputra] Taming a Lion” and the “Melon Mouse Button Seal” now held by the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Under the tutelage of Lin Youzhu (1904–1952), a representative figure of the Eastern school of Shoushan stone carving, Guo Maojie (1924–2013) became one of the most eminent Shoushan stone carving craftsmen. He excelled at round and relief carving of figures and seal engraving. His works cover extensive topics with a technique blending tradition and innovation, with a penetrating knowledge of literature and art displayed within his own lofty artistic conceptions. An example is his “Xi’s Love of Geese,” referencing the affection felt by the famed calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303–361) toward this bird which he viewed as a source of inspiration for his brushwork. Guo Maojie completed this carving in 2002 and it was then awarded the gold prize of the East China Fine Arts and Crafts. Lin Henyun (1930–) is another celebrated Shoushan stone carving artist who specialized in wood sculpture in his youth and only later turned to Shoushan stone. His Shoushan works combine the delicacy ivory carving with the pure simplicity of wood sculpture. No matter whether animals or people, his creations all exhibit his personal style. His “Swimming Fish” sculpted in 1978 has a leisurely charm that is a feast for the eye; it has long been classified as a treasure.
Shoushan stone, with its glossy and unctuous texture has also long been a favorite of calligraphers (often also painters) who enjoyed the cutting of characters on seals, carefully carving Shoushan stone seals with a delicate blade. Many rarities of this type have been handed down, among them examples by famous artists such as Qi Baishi (1864–1957), Wu Changshuo (1844–1927), Pan Zhulan, Chen Zifen (1898–1976), and Chen Julai (1904–1984).
The natural beauty of Shoushan stone has been an inspiration to many through the ages, from the seal engravers pondering over how best to reveal its charms to the writers contemplating also how best to praise its loveliness. But it is only through the miraculous craftsmanship of the artists who have shaped Shoushan stone into myriad forms that it has been endowed with a humanistic spirituality that have made Shoushan stone an eternally alluring embodiment of Chinese cultural brilliance.