Taihu (Tai Lake) stones, long admired since the Tang dynasty, are one of the most widely known and easily recognized of all stones, both in China and in western countries. Their primary use were as garden stones, often large signature pieces occupying key locations in classical gardens. Taihu became a major stone used in traditional gardens in the Tang dynasty and in other classical gardens built in later dynasties. The larger garden stones became the object of many artists, poets, and writers. In fact, they may well have been the subject of more works of arts and writings than any other stone. The Lingbi and Ying stones were also admired by writers and artists.
Medium- to smaller-sized pieces of Taihu stone were used to build rockeries in gardens and for use in key locations along the edges and in small ponds or lakes within gardens. The supply of choice stones was limited and some scholars think that the supply was exhausted during the late Tang dynasty. This was based upon numerous writers from this period lamenting how expensive these stones were and the difficulty in getting them. The supply of stones from Lake Tai was limited and eventually exhausted. Mowry (1997) wrote “During the Qing dynasty, other sites occasionally produced Taihu-like stones, including Zhaoqing, in Guangdong province and Guangde, in Anhui province.” Water weathered limestone can be found in many locations throughout southern China since much of the underlaying rock is limestone. We have even seen Taihu-like limestone taken from the Mekong River in Yunnan province.
The literature reveals that artists in the Northern Sung dynasty would sometimes carve and work pieces of limestone to resemble Taihu stones, and then place them back in lakes, for several years let the natural wave action to further shape the stones. Even some of the stones from Taihu were worked to create additional new holes or undulations. It is often difficult to tell if an older stone has been worked in this manner.
Smaller choice pieces of Taihu stones were mounted on wooden bases, and brought in doors, and used as scholar’s stones on the desks of artists, poets, and writers. Antique Taihu stones from the Ming and Qing dynasties, when they can be traced to that time, are in great demand and command high prices when they are available. Today, “Taihu stones” can occasionally be seen and purchased in stone markets in China. Most of these are heavily worked (carved or made via sand blasting), or they are stone sculptures that resemble Taihu stones. The quality varies considerable from crude pieces to beautiful works of art. Antique Taihu stones are best purchased from reputable antique dealers, or from serious collectors who hold stones passed down from one generation to the next generation.
Historical Aspects: Taihu stones have been the main object in some of the poems from famous poets. For example, the Tang dynasty high official Niu Sengru (779-849) loved stones and assembled a collection of over 1,000 stones. He was especially fond of Taihu stones and Niu had the famous poet Bai Juyi write The Records of Tai Lake Stones for him. This illustrates the importance of these stones at that time.
Later, in the Qing dynasty, artists often painted scenes from the great Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Ca Xueqin. This epic book, about the rise and fall of a family, and dealing with themes such as the reality of nature and truth, was also known as The Story of The Stone. Many of the paintings depicted garden scenes replete with large Taihu stones.
The Dream of the Red Chamber will be the subject of a future feature article, and more detailed information about stones in Chinese poetry will be treated in future articles on this web site.
Today, one of the best places to see and learn about historically important Taihu stones is the Lingering Garden in Suzhou. This Ming dynasty garden has collected and erected over 30 large, vertically oriented stones including The Cloud-Capped Peak, one of three most famous Taihu stones in China. Other well known stones in this garden include The Mountainous Cloud Peak, The Auspicious Cloud Peak, and The Sunflower Peak.
Origin: Taihu stones are water eroded limestone that originated first and foremost from the Grand Lake or Lake Tai, the third largest fresh water lake in China. This relatively shallow body of water with its characteristic and famous stone formations is located on the borders of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and just West of Wuxi. Originally, the stones were broken from their connection to larger rocks or bed rock by divers, and the stones were lifted onto boats and carried to shore. Some large stones were transported via the Great Canal to major cities like Suzhou to adorn the gardens of prominent bureaucrats or wealthy merchants. Some of the pieces were huge, reaching 15 meters in height.
Features: Original Taihu stones are heavily water-worn pieces resulting millions of years of wave action, slowly eroding away softer stone, leaving behind an often abstract shaped rock that has numerous holes or channels, often slender and more vertical than horizontally oriented and has a wrinkled surface with indentations and undulations. Edges on Taihu stones are typically rounded or nearly so and appear worn rather than having sharp edges. These pieces of limestone are often granular, and range in color from the more commonly encountered cream and off white stones to ones that are light gray and less common pale blue to yellow, red, and black. Hu (2008) states that these stones are 3 to 4 on the Moh hardiness scale; thus, making them a relatively soft stone.
References in Chinese: Liu 2007, pp. 52-57; Ren 2000, 2002.
References in English: Hay, Hu 2002, pp. 25-29; Mowry 1997, pp. 26-27;