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Carving out a Place in Art History
Many interesting legends in China are related to Emperor Qianlong, a man of wisdom and romance in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and here is one of them.

The emperor had a strange dream one night and was so curious about its meaning that he called his ministers the next morning to relate its detail.

"I saw three big characters in my dream - fu (fortune), shou (longevity) and tian (field). Is there anyone who can explain why the three words appeared together?"

Everyone present was baffled and unable to give a satisfactory answer until an official from Fuzhou, capital of today's Fujian Province in East China, spoke up.

"Your Majesty, you must have dreamed of a treasure from my hometown: Tianhuang Stone (yellowish stone dug out from the rice field) from Shoushan (Mountain of Longevity) Village in suburban Fuzhou. It's the best of the Shoushan stones," the official said.

Emperor Qianlong, who greatly desired treasure, was extremely pleased with the answer and praised Tianhuang as "the King of Stone."

Qianlong then received many priceless gifts from local officials -- art works carved from Tianhuang Stone. The art of Shoushan stone carvings has also become nationally famous as a result of the emperor's praise.

Now visitors can gain a glimpse of what made the emperor so enthralled at an exhibition of Shoushan stone carvings (some made of Tianhuang Stone), at the Yanhuang Art Museum in Beijing. Until October 9 people will be able to grasp how charming this traditional art is.

"The art of Shoushan stone carvings originated more than 1,500 years ago in the Southern Dynasty (AD 420-589) and has prospered since the mid-Qing Dynasty," said Wang Yifan, a renowned stone carving artist who is also deputy director of the Fuzhou Stone Carving Art Factory.

"Local artists and artisans have produced art on more than 100 kinds of colorful, transparent stones found in an area of 40 kilometers around the Shoushan Village - in rice fields, rivers and mountains. Those from the rice field are of the best quality and often most expensive."

According to Wang, the 600 works in this exhibition were mainly made following the Qing Dynasty. A majority of them are by artists of contemporary China, revealing how this traditional art has developed in the present age.

Among the most noticeable exhibits are representative works by late Shoushan stone carving masters Lin Qingqin, Lin Shoukan, Zhou Baoting and Huang Hengsong. Other exhibits were produced by accomplished living artists such as Guo Gongseng, Chen Jinggui, Wang Yifan and Guo Zibo.

The works fall into many categories, such as Boyi (a delicate, thin relief carved on the surface of the stone), sculptures, ornaments and seals. Most of them are small and people can hold them in their hands - a traditional way for Chinese to enjoy Shoushan stonewares.

"I was especially impressed by the elegant Boyi works of Lin Qingqin, the lovely animal sculptures of Zhou Baoting and the delicate figure sculptures of Wang Yifan," said Han Ming, a Beijing art scholar who visited the show.

Shoushan stone carvings have gained fame for combining refined techniques, the special texture of the material and traditional cultural symbols, according to Guo Zibo, an artist and curator of the exhibition.

Images and shapes of the works are often elegant, mild and delicate. Most works are traditionally portraits of animals or are based on stories in Chinese literature.

However, some contemporary works reflect Chinese daily life and the influence of Western perspective techniques in particular.

"Although it is necessary to develop new facets for this art, traditional skills and flavours of authentic Shoushan stone carvings must be urgently saved," Guo said.

Fewer young people are taking on board the skills and experience of older generations of artists and artisans of Shoushan stone carvings, who are dwindling in number with each year.

Resources of Shoushan stones are also threatened by over-exploration.

"Even more worrying is that many young artists and artisans are attracted by the economic profits of Shoushan stone carvings and thus neglect the artistic quality of their works," Guo said.

Shoushan stone carvings have been popular in art markets in Japan, Southeast Asia as well as in the regions of Hong Kong and Taiwan for a long time.

In recent years, the art works have enjoyed increasing popularity in the local market as people become more affluent and concerned about their quality of life.

(China Daily September 30, 2002)

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