Dali Marble 大理石 dalishi

We returned to Yunnan Province in July and had the privilege of being hosted for several days in Dali by the Viewing Stone Association of Dali. It is an easy four- to five-hour drive north of the capital city Kunming or a short forty-five minute flight. During this time, we were able to visit several magnificent private collections of selected sliced marble or picture stones as they are known locally. We were taken to two different small-scale factories that received and cut the large slabs of rock into thin slices that are used for decorative pieces. Many retail outlets selling these stones were also on our busy schedule. During this time, we saw thousands of pieces of sliced Dali marble, interviewed several key people, took hundreds of photographs, and obtained several books about these stones. Dali marble is second only to Yellow Jade in value in the viewing stone industry in Yunnan Province. We will be sharing this information with our viewers in a two-part series.

Dali marble is famous for the vast deposits of different types of marble found in the Cangshan (Blue Mountains) rising sharply to the West of the city. This mountain range and its deposits of marble were formed over two billion years ago when two large crustal plates collided during the breakup of Pangea. At this time, Pangea broke apart and massive pieces shifted position on the surface of the earth. One plate, known as the Indian Plate, collided with one of the plates that would form present-day southern China. The collision of these two plates form the Himalayan Mountains to the North and lower mountains chains on the East. Typically, one plate slowly slides under the other and, in the process, causes a rippling and uplifting effect that results in mountains forming. The Cangshan is one of those ranges formed long ago. The tremendous pressure and heat generated during this time caused the extensive carbonate deposits, mainly limestone containing calcite and magnesium, to transform into marble. The recrystallization process resulted in the denser and harder marble. Thus, marble is a metamorphic rock. In some areas, other minerals such as copper, olivine, iron oxides, quartz, pyrite, and others, were present as impurities in the marble. It is these marbles that are used as “picture stones” in China. Cangshan marbles that lack these impurities is widely used in construction throughout China.

Pieces of sliced or cut marble from the Cangshan adjacent to Dali in Yunnan Province have long fascinated people for their beauty and for the varied images they invoke. Dali was the ancient capital of the Bai Kingdom known as Nanzhao and later the Kingdom of Dali. Circular pieces of sliced marble were used as wall decorations in traditional homes of higher ranking or wealthy people. The use of marble as a decorative object dates back to the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties. Dali marble was the object of poems, including one titled “Snow Wave Stones” by the famous writer, poet, and calligrapher Su Shi, also known under the pseudonym Su Dongpo. Later in the Ming Dynasty, travel writer Xu Xiake described Dali marble in his work “A Traveling Diary in Yunnan.”  He described a picture stone as having distant mountains and vast waters with changing waves.

During Imperial China, there was a definite preference for black-and-white patterned sliced stones. These resembled the works of many artists who used only black ink and black ink washed paintings, particularly of mountain and land scape scenes. We were informed that antique pieces of Dali marble can be identified by the uneven surface and the rough chiseled back side of the marble piece. The cutting process in Imperial China was not as sophisticated and precise as the present-day methods.

Today, there is a definite preference for more colorful pieces of sliced Dali marble. These include ones that resemble abstract paintings while other people prefer ones with figures of people or animals. Colorful landscape settings dominate the bulk of the picture stones we saw.

Dali picture stones have been incorporated into furniture since the Ming dynasty. Small thin pieces of round, square, rectangular, or fan-shaped marble are used in the backs of chairs, top of stands, and in large screens. In modern China, more pieces of Dali marble are mounted in often elaborate table top stands or framed as used as wall hangings. Some of these wall hangings have reached Western markets in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. Each piece is unique and the wide range of patterns creates an unlimited opportunity to appreciate the beauty found in the stone. In North America, they are sometime given the name “Dream Stones” by firms selling these stones.

Zhou Hongxing’s Chinese language book, The Album of Natural Marble Pictures Collected by Zhou Hongxing (2000), is an excellent introduction to these stones. He present hundreds of Dali marble pieces grouped into major categories and then subdivided within each of his major groups. His three major categories are: 1) Scenery of Mountains and Waters; 2) The World of People; and 3) The World of Animals. See the review of this book in the Reference section of this website. A shorter English language work, Dreaming of Dreamstones, China’s Extraordinary Natural Stone Paintings (2011), by Douglas Schneible is a good introduction to these stones. See Reference Section of this site for a review.


(to be continued next month)


(Text and photographs copyrighted by VSANA).


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