Initially, the primary purpose of making imperial seals was to establish credibility for imperial edicts. These seals were mainly made of cast bronze or engraved gold, and they were carried around as seal pendants. As seals became a common accessory outside the imperial court and the imperial palace, the material used to make it gradually shifted to mostly wood and sometimes stone in order to reduce the cost of it.
Historical records of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) suggest that most of the excavation of Shoushan stones took place in Fujian Province. During the mid-Ming Dynasty, Shoushan stones, although used as the material to make seals, were still rare in types; therefore, the size of its excavation and the supply of it remained low. Due to the scarce supply of stones, artists selected only the portions that were mostly suited for carving. It was not until the Qing Dynasty that Shoushan stones began to gain its popularity.
The excavation site of Shoushan stones, in fact, took place in a suburban area approximately 40 kilometers north of Fuzhou City. It was located at the intersection of the three mountains—Mount Shoushan, Mount Jiufeng, and Mount Furong—that range across Lienchiang County and Luoyuan County. At the bottom of the mountain, cottages and temples are scattered in the fields, creating a blissful landscape. The serene land nurtured fine stones, which are rich in colors, smooth in texture, and divergent in patterns. These characteristics make Shoushan stones the most ideal choice for sculptors.
During the Qing Dynasty, seal carving had become an independent study of art. A large number of scholars, painters, and calligraphers adored and praised the art of seal stone. The excavation of stones had significantly and professionally improved in the mountain areas in order to satisfy the growing demands by seal artists and craftsmen. Based on the experiences and preferences of the sculptors and seal makers, the stone materials were divided into three categories of various types by the Mid-Qing Dynasty. The three main categories, basically named after the excavation sites, included Tiankeng (fields), Shueikeng (puddles), and Shankeng (mountains). Tiankeng is where to find the independent stones scattered by the riverbank and hidden in the underground around the Shoushan Village. Shueikeng is referred to as the veinstones from the southern pithead in the Shoushan Village; the ones in their crystalized state were also called Shueidong (stones excavated from puddles and having a jelly-like texture) or Dongshi (jelly-like stones) as people believed that they “have spiritual attributes.” Shankeng is the general term for Ceraphite found in the two excavation sites—Shoushan and Yueyang.
Amongst the various types of Shoushan stones, Tiankeng stones are considered as the most valuable. In the ancient sand layer at the bottom of the paddy fields alongside of the Shoushan creek, which is only a few miles long, an assortment of irregularly scattered and isolated stones known as Tianshi (stones excavated from fields) can be found. Depending on where the excavation took place, Tianshi can be further classified as upper-hill ( 上 坂 ), middle-hill( 中 坂 ), lower-hill( 下 坂 ), and downstream-hill( 碓 下 坂 ). Middlehill Tianshi is the finest in quality and texture, and it is known to be the best stones among all stones. The different types of Tiankeng stones are named using their colors, quality, and their places of origin. There are four types of stones—Tianhuang (yellow stones excavated from fields), Baitian (white-ish stones excavated from fields), Hongtian (orange-reddish stones excavated from fields), and Heitian (blackish stones excavated from fields). On the other hand, Tiankeng stones that are lower in quality include Yingtian (stones excavated from fields and are rough and hard in texture), Geliutian (stones that emerged from underground due to plowing or landslides), and Xiguantian (stones excavated from the bottom of rivers).
Most Tiankeng stones exhibit a pattern resembling shredded radish. The density of such pattern may be loose or packed, and embedded or revealed. Tianhuang is the most precious and the rarest stones among all; it is rich in color with a translucent and lustrous texture. If the Tianhuang is covered with black skin, it is called Wuyapi-Tianhuang ( 烏鴉皮田黃 , Tianghuang covered in a blackish layer like the feather of a crow); if it has a yellow outer layer and a white inner part, it is known as “Silver Wrapped in Gold.”The stones excavated from Mount Furong are a standalone type of stones that is well-known for its variety of colors and textures. Fancied by stone collectors, sculptors, and seal artists for its elegance and graciousness, these stones are ideal for carving, for they have incomparable qualities and various colors. These stones are the most collectable seal stones ever discovered since the past century.
Besides Fujian Province, Changhua and Qingtian in Zhejiang Province as well as Jiangxi and Balin in Inner Mongolia are also places known for nurturing beautiful stones with fine qualities. The uniqueness in their colors and textures has offered a great selection for seal stone carving and has established the foundation and development of seal art, giving rise not only to the contemporary seal stone masters and artists but also the glamourous cultural pieces they created.
More people have discovered their love for collecting Shoushan stone artworks, including calligraphers and painters who pay scrupulous details to the beauty of seal stones. Not only do they admire the fine quality of these lovely stones, they also appreciate the exquisite details and intricate carvings demonstrated in the artworks. People form lasting friendships as they gather to share in the joy of appreciating the elegance and gracefulness of these stones. Mr. Yi has spent nearly three decades visiting Mount Shoushan to personally select the best stones with the finest qualities and with the spiritual attributes. He commissioned several famous artists to make the stones into wonderful artworks that he has preciously kept in his own gallery for years. His collection features a variety of Tianshi in diverse colors, such as Furong stones, Lichi (Lychee) stones, Shanbo stones, Kengtou stones, Gaoshan stones, Qijiang stones, Changhua ChickenBlood stones, Qingtian stones, and Balin stones. These stones are all of the finest quality and carved with extremely exquisite skills by the best sculptors. Now, this collection of extraordinary Tiankeng stones will be displayed at the National Museum of History in Taipei during the exhibition of “Experience the Stone Arts.” It is our hope that everyone will seize this great opportunity and take a closer glimpse at the finest stone artworks.
at the Taipei Little Mountain
Resort on a mid-autumn day in Year of the Monkey