Although Lingbi stones have been used and admired for over a millennium, they became popular in the Song dynasty. They, along with the Taihu and Ying stones, have been the subject of more artists, poets, writers, stone connoisseurs than any other garden or viewing stones. The only other stone that comes close to matching the appeal of the Lingbi is the Taihu stone from Jiangsu Province. The Lingbi are heavily eroded limestone rocks from Anhui Province that occur in varying strange and bizarre shapes. These shapes have fascinated and have been treasured by famous Chinese leaders, and literati throughout the dynasties. Lingbi is one of the most valuable stones, and is often referred to as the number one stone in China. Lingbi stones, along with Ying, Taihu, and Kun, are considered to be the four most precious of all viewing stones in China.
Historical Aspects: Wang and Gong 2008 state that some of the first uses of Lingbi were for making Paleolithic and Neolithic Age tools, toys, and later as musical instruments. The myriad of extraordinary and highly irregular shapes have intrigued and fascinated leaders, scholars, artists and poets throughout most of the dynasties. Lingbi was the first stone listed in Du Wan’s Yunlin Shipu, the earliest book published in Chinese that was devoted solely to stones that were appreciated for their natural beauty. Du Wan described them as being of great elegance often in the shape of natural objects such as clouds, the sun, moon, or as a Buddha-shaped stone. He described them as the most celebrated of the garden stones.
Origin: Lingbi stones originate from a series of mountain peaks in Lingbi County, one of five counties in Suzhou Prefecture in northern Anhui Province. Like most Chinese stones, the name is derived from the geographic location where they are found. Hu (2006) stated that there are about 70 mountain peaks in this county that produce different types of Lingbi stones. She noted that White Lingbi come from Dugu Mountain, while Red Lingbi is found on Jiuding Mountain, and other color variations from different mountains.
Initially, the stones were found on the surface of the mountain peaks, and were the highly irregularly shapes and forms were partially exposed (Wang and Gong, 2008). For many years, the stones could be obtained from very shallow hand excavations. Gradually, as the stones became more popular, more intensive mining occurred and more adjacent mountain peaks. The stones were often transported by boat during the different dynasties to cities such as Suzhou. Today, excavation pits for these stones are much deeper, and cranes are used to lift the stones to the surface. The stones are covered with compacted soils and need to be cleaned to show the full surface texture, and patterns. Cleaning is often done by high pressure water hoses, then wire brushes, and sometimes fine sand paper and water. The orange to yellowish-orange crusty layer on the lower surface (or back of the stones when displayed) is difficult to remove and is frequently left on the stones.
Features: Lingbi is composed of limestone or types of limestone typically with few to many fine, often crisscrossing, white calcite veins. The limestone has been heavily eroded, probably by water, in past geological history, so the softer stone was worn away leaving behind highly irregular and grotesque shapes in the harder remaining stone. These stones range in hardness from 5 to 6.5 on the Moh scale. White Lingbi is the hardest of the different types (Scogin in Mowry, 1997). Occasionally, Lingbi will have holes, although not as frequent or as numerous as most Taihu stones. Lingbi occurs in narrow lens in the earth, thus, there is an upper side or face (the irregular eroded face) and a relatively flat lower side that is often covered with encrusted with yellowish to orange soils that have hardened into a stone-like crust. Individual pieces of Lingbi stone are typically large to very large, although medium-size and smaller pieces are known. Lingbi that are used as outdoor landscape stones may be several meters high and wide.
The most frequently encountered stones are various shade of gray, although black, reddish, yellow, green and white are occasionally seen. Some black and white Lingbi are known. Black Lingbi is considered as the best and most valuable (Hu, 2006, Mowry 1997). Lingbi displayed out of doors in garden settings tend to become lighter in color with time. Lingbi stones have the usual feature in that many of them resonate when struck lightly with a key or small piece of metal. In fact, some stones can have more than one tone. As a result, pieces of Lingbi stone were cut and fashioned into different lengths and used as musical instruments well over 1,000 years ago and they are still used today in making traditional Chinese instruments (Wang and Gong, 2008). An amazing set of ancient Lingbi musical stones can be seen in the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan. It is not unusual to encounter the musical version of these stones when travelling in China. Some group them in artificial categories such as outdoor landscape stones, indoor stone, abstract or Zen-like stones, and figure stones. Zheng (2004) and his colleagues developed a fairly elaborate, five-tiered classification system for Lingbi, dividing them first into one of four categories (garden, lobby, desk, or playable stones). Each of the first three categories were further subdivided. For example, Color Lingbi was subdivided into White Lingbi, Red Lingbi, and Wan Luo Lingbi. The lobby stones were further divided into subcategories based upon texture, chime or resonance, color, or other features.
References in Chinese: Sun, 2005; Wang, 2000; Wang and Gong, 2008; Zheng, 2004;
References in English: Hu, 2002, pp. 35-39; Hu, 2006; Scogin in Mowry, 1997, pp 37-56; Schafer 2005, pp. 50-51.