Food Stones 食物石, shiwu
One of the fascinating specialized categories of stone appreciation in China is food stones, a group comprised of agates, chalcedony, different colors of jasper, and other small stones that resemble food. Their popularity is especially evident in Alashan in Inner Mongolia. Alashan is the stone capital of northern China and the primary location for Gobi Desert stones. Most of the food stones are from the broad Alashan region of the Gobi Desert and are brought by local collectors to the markets in this city.
While this may seem like a passing fad, interest in stones resembling food can be traced back to Imperial China when interests included both natural food-like stone, as well as high quality jade that was carved to resemble food. Two of the most frequently visited items in the vast collections of the National Palace Museum in Taipei are a Qing Dynasty piece of jadite carved to appear like a real Chinese cabbage and a natural layer of stones that looks like a piece of roasted pork with untrimed fat. Thus, interest in collecting stones that can be easily mistaken for food is a well-established practice in China.
At least one or two entire dinner banquets made from many different stones are exhibited in Alashan during their major annual stone festival. Similar table settings can be seen in Yinchuan in neighboring Ningxia province. Individual pieces of food stones are readily available in the stone markets in Yinchuan and Alashan. The stones may be sold as individual bite-size food pieces or as an entire collection of several thousand stones comprising an entire banquet. We experienced this in November 2014 in Alashan when we wanted to purchase a few nice food stones that were part of a huge display of stones on a long rectangular table. The owner of the store informed us that we had to buy the entire display at a price of 80,000 RMB (about $13,300) if we wanted any of those.
At one time, these stones were relatively inexpensive, however, in recent years higher quality stones have become expensive and collectors vie with each other for the best ones. Some stones resemble different types of meat—beef, pork, mutton, sausages—while others resemble vegetables, seeds, and fruits. Even stone counterparts too many types of desert can be found. Some of these stones are so similar to the real food, that it is easy to confuse the two. Obviously, these stones are evaluated on the basis of how closely they resemble real food items and not on the modern or traditional criteria for stones. These are a specialty type of stone in the vast array of stones appreciated today in modern China.
See the featured book review for this month, Imperial Banquet and Stone Feast, for a thorough and beautiful presentation of one of the finest collections of food stones in the world.