Worked versus Unworked Stones
There is a perception among many Western stone collectors that a worked stone, one that has been altered in any way, is inferior and that it fails to follow Asian principles for acceptable viewing stones. Some Western collectors even believe that there is a degree of deception involved in worked stones. This is a naïve belief that is not supported by the Asian literature or practices. Certainly, most collectors prefer a stone that is totally natural and formed by elements of nature. These stones are rare and cannot be supplied in sufficient numbers to meet the demand for unusual and attractive stones to be used as objects of admiration and appreciation. Also, Western perceptions often do not take into consideration Chinese views and beliefs concerning worked stones.
Ancient stone carving precedes written history. Jade carvings date back to Neolithic times approximately 2000 to 3000 BCE and continued throughout the long history of China and other countries. Seal engraving, cutting the bottom of a small stone to create a name, appeared around 200 BCE. While stone appreciation in China had its beginnings early in its history, it flourished in the Tang and Song dynasties. Precious stones were brought into gardens and estate landscapes as key elements of garden design. Smaller unusual stones eventually were brought into homes, especially the studios of scholars, artists, and other literati. It was not unusual for an owner to inscribe his name or a short verse on a stone. This was a way of showing admiration for a stone, and also a means of establishing ownership, which in turn provided evidence of the provenance of a stone. Some of the most valued stones in Chinese stone appreciation are ones that were inscribed during the Imperial period. Many of the larger stones used in garden settings were worked to establish a more stable base so they could be displayed in a balanced vertical position.
The manipulation of stones to improve their appearance is well documented in early Chinese literature. Edward H. Schafer’s superb English language reference, Tu Wan’s Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest, provides ample evidence of worked stones. In particular, Chapter four, Technology and Petrology, discusses the various tools and methods used to work stones. Schafer states that “Twelfth-century connoisseurs seem not to have put a premium on “natural stones. The Stone Catalogue tells repeatedly that the artistry of the specimens must be enhanced by human hands and metal tools”. Some stones were viewed as works of art with no intent at deception.
The scarcity of quality stones from Lake Tai even in Imperial China led to the working of many Taihu stones. Stones were broken loose from the lake bed, bases were improved, and additional holes were often carved in the stones. Sometimes, these worked stones were placed back into the lake so the action of the waves could create a more natural appearing stone. Chrysanthemum flower stones in the marketplace are another type of stone that is often worked; it is uncommon to see a chrysanthemum stone in a completely natural state. Removing a portion of the matrix stone is frequently needed to expose the mineral formations.
Even today, certain types of stones are being worked in China, Japan, and other countries for collectors. We should recognize that the marketplaces today contain examples of both worked and unworked stones. A superior stone can be enjoyed and appreciated based upon its features and not on the fact that it was definitely or was possibly altered in some way in past times. It is a stone’s ability to evoke feelings and communicate a message to the viewer than is most important. Abstract, figure and pattern stones along with ones that capture the poetic beauty of a natural landscape all have the ability to influence our thoughts as we enjoy them and use them as objects for meditation.