Inscribed Stones: An Example
In China it was not unusual for craftsmen to work on an imperfect stone to improve its aesthetic appearance. Records of such 'improvements' date to the 12th century Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest where the author describes how certain stones have been altered. Chinese scholar Edward Schafer pointed out that stone aficionados were more interested in a stone appearance and aesthetic features than they were about appreciating natural stones. Some stones had to be severely brushed and cleaned to remove clay adhering to the surface before they could be enjoyed by collectors. Other stones were altered at the base to make them more stable when placed in an upright position. Stones from the Grand Lake (Taihu) were cut and shaped and then re-submerged into the lake for months or even years to eventually give a more natural looking appearance to the stone.
Some older prized stones were altered by carving the name, date, and time, a short poem or other information on the surface of an older stone. This was done by the owner and served as a record of provenance. These inscribed stones became particularly valuable when they could be traced to historically important bureaucrats, poets, or other literati. This practice was done throughout the dynasties of Imperial China. Inscribed stones do not necessarily require that the stone’s shape be altered in anyway; however, that is a possibility.
As an example of multiple inscriptions, a late Qing dynasty Laoshan Green stone (崂山绿石) has three inscriptions on it. An examination of this stone does reveal that its features are consistent with those of a stone that has long been in a collector’s hands. Another clue of the stone’s age, pointing back to the Qing dynasty, is a single character “gong” on the lower front that is translated “tribute.” The features of this stone make it a true Gongshi or tribute stone.
Additionally, there are two lines of characters on the back of this stone. One line can be translated as “Spring of 1840” although the character for the date is used for any sixty year period. Thus, the date can be read 1840 or 1900 or even 1960, although this later date is unlikely given the age of other features of the stone. The owner’s name is given on the back as Zi Ya (or Ziye) which may be the artistic name for Qu Yingshao (1780-1849). Based upon this information, an 1840 date seems most likely.
Three characters on the upper part of the front of the stone are translated as “Green Stone” in reference to this Laoshan Green stone. We found it necessary to turn to an experienced Chinese antique specialist to determine if the three different inscriptions were made by the same person at the same time or if they were done at different times by different people. Knowledge of engraving techniques—manual versus a power tool—and the different style characters used over time are important aspects of determining the authenticity of the stone. The conclusion was that the characters for “Green Stone” may have been sometime after than the other two older inscriptions.
An inscribed stone like this will not be found in the stone markets; an inscribed stone is more likely to be seen in an antique shop specializing in Chinese relics. An authentic inscribed stone from Imperial China can be quite valuable. Before you invest a considerable amount of money in an older inscribed stone, consider that a stone can be skillfully inscribed much later and attributed to an earlier person. We recommend that you work with a specialist and/or a reputable established Chinese antique dealer. Ask for documentation. It is easy to attribute a stone to an earlier period, but it is difficult to truly trace a stone’s provenance to an earlier period.