Different species of coral have been used in Chinese stones appreciation since the Tang Dynasty, and possibly earlier. Coral was highly valued for many reasons, including their symbolic forms, and use in making beads, pins, and jewelry. Coral is found in a variety of colours ranging from cream to blue, and green to bright reds. The brilliant red corals have historically been the most esteemed and highly sought after. Chinese scholar and Professor Edward H. Schafer wrote, “The dendriform specimens had the strongest influence on the Chinese imagination, for they seemed true shrubs of fairyland and jewel trees from the paradises of the immortal gods.” The red coral used in the Tang and later Song Dynasties appear to have originated from widely different sources. Schafer reported that red coral was imported from the Mediterranean via Persia and from Ceylon to the Imperial Court. Red coral was also known from the South China Sea. In modern times, red coral was used from Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
The Lang-kan Stone, number 100 in Tu Wan’s Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest was considered by Schafer to represent coral; however, he later concluded that all Lang-kan stones were not coral. The role of coral in art, stone appreciation, and as tributes in ancient times is a complex matter according to another Chinese scholar John Hay, who stated that red coral was carried as offerings to the emperor. Despite the complex and sometimes confusing history, coral viewing stones were found in Imperial China and are occasionally seen in China today.
Coral is composed of living marine invertebrates that secrete an exoskeleton to provide the framework for their shape and size. This exoskeleton, made of aragonite, calcium, and calcium ions, is the portion of the coral that is utilized as viewing stones and made into jewelry. Once the living coral is removed from shallow seas, the living portion dies leaving the exoskeleton. Color depends upon the pigments produced by the living coral. Sometimes, fossilized coral heads (composed of numerous identical corals) are used as viewing stones. An example of this from Guizhou Province is included with this article. A hand-carved wood base resembling the lower body, legs, and head of a turtle was made for this stone. Together, they form a clear image of a turtle.
We do not recommend the harvesting of new coral for viewing stone collections as this is destructive to precious coral reefs, an important component of marine ecosystems. Only collect antique pieces of coral.