Conversation with a Stone Connoisseur
One of the most rewarding ways to learn about stone appreciation is to spend time with a serious collector. Being able to sit, drink tea, and discuss various aspects of stones for several hours while surrounded with a host of exceptional stones is far superior to visiting a hundred uninformed dealers selling mediocre stones. Recently, we had an opportunity to meet again with Shanghai stone collector and dealer Zhou Zhen Rong and his wife Ren Qing Ying. In prior years, we had visited their shop many times and had the pleasure of seeing their private collection in their home. Zhou is a second-generation stone connoisseur and active member in the Shanghai Viewing Stone Association, the second oldest in China.
Zhou’s father began collecting stones in the 1950s and shared his interest with his son. This interest grew and Zhou open his first stone shop on the Antique Street in Shanghai in 1982. This followed upon the rapidly growing popularity of viewing stones and its allied industry that began in Liuzhou in Guangxi province in the late 1970s. Liuzhou and Shanghai were the first two major centers of stone appreciation development in modern China. Zhou was amazed with the rapid spread in stone appreciation culture in China during the 1980s and 1990s when a number of stone markets and stone festivals sprang up in major cities throughout the country. This growth was fueled, in part, by the influx of many new types of stones. Zhou noted that there has been a decline in recent years of sales of certain types of stones as people learned to distinguish the features of a good stone. He thinks that many collectors developed higher standards over the years after learning from their mistakes. Zhou believes that the market for high quality stones is strong and still growing, while sales in average or mediocre stones are declining. Sales of smaller inexpensive new stones is growing as these stones appeal to beginning stone collectors.
As we sat in his news shop near Shanghai’s Pudong airport, we noticed that most of the stones were types that were collected in the dynastic period of China’s history. Zhou told us that he preferred the traditional types of Chinese stones to most of the more modern types. I asked him if “Chi” or energy was still considered an important feature for serious stone collectors or if this had become an out-of-date concept. He smiled and said that the presence of “chi” is still important, and we looked at several stones that displayed this feature. Influences from Daoism and Buddhism led many Chinese to believed that “chi” is a universal life force that condenses in rocks and emerges in many fascinating shapes.
Our conversation shifted primarily to classical stones and that led to a discussion of Taihu stones. These stones original were taken from Lake Tai, but that source was almost exhausted by the Ming dynasty. As a result, similar types of stones were taken from other lakes and even gathered from mountains and dry lake beds in other provinces. Now, many shops owner sell Northern Taihu and Southern Taihu stones. Zhou prefers natural Taihu stones but said these are rare and expensive when compared to the frequently encountered ones that have been extensively worked. He then showed me two natural Taihu stones that stood side by side. One was taken from a lake and another from the mountains. The lake stone had a rougher surface and was light yellowish while the one from a mountain had a smoother surface and was light gray in color. He said that the original Taihu stones removed from Lake Tai long ago were large and used primarily as garden stones rather than displayed indoors.
Next, we talked about Lingbi stones. We discussed how to distinguish a more valuable Lingbi stone that had been in a collection for many decades or centuries from a more recently collected stone. In this process we looked at several of these stones in his shop and the answer was obvious. Stones recently dug from the soil, cleaned and mounted in carved wood bases have a fresh appearance with a light- to medium-gray surface color. After Lingbi stones have been exposed to air, a slow oxidation process begins that will change their color and appearance. This oxidation process continues over decades, possibly over centuries. The development of a patina on the surface of a stone generates a feeling of oldness or antiquity that is important, especially for classical Chinese stones. This is not a reference to the geological age of a rock, but rather to how long it has been part of a stone collection. We did not have time to discuss the oxidation process on different types of Lingbi stones. That will be another discussion at a future time.
After a while, several other stone collectors and dealers arrived and joined in the conversation. Sharing information and knowledge among stone fellow stone collectors is one of the joys of stone appreciation. The comradery that emerges from sessions like this are stimulating as information is exchanged. Our group went to lunch together. The large round tables in Chinese restaurants provide a suitable setting for continuing questions and answers. The presence of a competent translator is essential when most of the people in the group are not bilingual. Nonetheless, the opportunity to sit and view quality stones with like-minded people is a special moment in our lives.