China’s Vast Network of Stone Collectors
The View Stone Association of China estimates that there are four to five million people collecting viewing stones and even more in the associated industries of jewelry made from stones and other types of worked stones. Why are they so many stone hobbyists in China today? Why are viewing stones so popular in China today? The answer lies in a combination of factors weaving together ancient attitudes and beliefs in stone appreciation: the long history of stones and their involvement in art, gardens and homes; and economic considerations, especially in modern stone appreciation.
Historically, many of China’s leading artists, poets, and calligraphers used individual, unusually shaped or beautiful stones as objects of their artistic talents. There are literally hundreds of poems about stones. Landscape and garden scene painters, especially in the Ming and Qing dynasties, frequently included large Lingbi, Taihu and Ying stones in their paintings. Over 100 “shipu” or stone catalogs were published throughout the different dynasties. The Yunlin shipu or Du Wan’s Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest was one of the earliest and best known of these books. Many others were produced as a means of instructing students on the techniques of painting stones. Lin Youlin’s illustrated Suyuan shipu published in 1613 has become a classic reference in Chinese stone appreciation. These, along with the numerous paintings, poems, and writings, clearly demonstrate that stones are more interwoven in Chinese culture than in Japanese or western cultures.
Today, in China, stones still are regarded as art objects, and impressive new museums have been constructed to display outstanding examples. The new museums in Wuxi and Liuzhou are two examples of huge facilities constructed solely for stone appreciation. Numerous smaller museums can be found throughout China. Reflecting the long history of Chinese stone painters, several modern artists have specialized in painting stones. However, economics, rather than art, seems to be a more important force in the rapidly expanding world of stone appreciation in China. It takes a vast network of collectors, wood carvers, wholesalers, retailers, writers, publishers, and strong government support to sustain five million collectors. Local and regional governments, especially in the poorer rural areas, promote stone appreciation because it is one way of creating jobs and simulating the local economies. We were told that over 100,000 people are employed in Liuzhou, Guangxi province, in stone-related activities. Stone collecting is an important source of income for people located in rural areas throughout the vast reaches of the Gobi desert.
Not only does stone collecting and appreciation generate jobs; leaders promote stone collecting as an investment, much like purchasing stocks and bonds. Almost each issue of the leading stone appreciation magazine, Baozhang, contains an article encouraging people to invest in stones or information about the profitability of such investment to an individual or to a local city. As a result, some entrepreneurs are investing in both extraordinary stones and also stones that are currently in vogue and holding them until prices rise further. This type of speculative investment has been driving the price of certain Chinese stones to amazing levels. Some Gobi desert stones that resembles a person’s face or a Buddha commands prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a few even have sold for prices in excess of $1,000,000. Even modern Chinese are affected by this speculation. An example of this is the Dahua stone from Guangxi province. The original supply of these river stones has largely been exhausted and, now, the stones in the market place are being recycled from private collections and from investors.
As the demand grows for quality stones, more have to be collected and entered into the various stone markets. But, quality stones are in short supply and are often limited in their native environments. Thus, the Ministry of Lands and Resources studied the various stone types in China and has identified over 200 different ones that can be used in stone appreciation. Each year, we see a few new types of stones in the markets and watch eager dealers promote these stones. It is difficult to predict which stones will become popular and which ones will not. The Yunnan province Iron Stones (see galleries) were first introduced into stone appreciation circles in 2004, and support for them is slowly growing; however, they will likely not achieve the status of the more colorful Dahua stones from Guangxi province. The stone appreciation industry receives the strong support of the national, regional, and, in some areas, local governments. This explains how a fairly remote city like Liuzhou can rise to call itself the stone capital of China. This support also helps explain why there is a steady growing palate of stones being collected, especially from the outlying provinces far from the East coast of China.