Discover spectacular legacy of Zhegiang Stonecutters
The province of Zhejiang is one of the strongholds of stone quarrying in China. Stone quarries have been operational here for three millennia and this industry has left its marks everywhere in the province, both on the coast and inland. The early quarries have long since become remarkable, majestic sites — looming, foreboding grottoes, sheer rock faces and water pools, of infinite variety and shapes, one more remarkable than the next.
Walking into one of ancient Zhejiang quarries you are stepping back far into history. Close your eyes and it comes to life — the knocking of hammers, sparks flying, the signing of the workmen, the grinding of drills boring into the stone. For generations, these tough men would battle with the rock — muscles bulging on their arms, ropes taught tight, they prized slabs of rock out of the depths of the mountain, sending them on their journey far and wide.
I look closely at the grooves in the rock made by workmen’s chisels centuries ago and run my fingers over the dents they made in the surface. What I am touching is a record of our ancestors’ ingenuity and tenacity, but the same ancestors would never have imagined that the result of their work, the caves and cliffs they ripped out of the heart of the mountain, would draw people from afar to admire the beauty their tools have created.
Changyu Caves: The Hollow Mountains
A friend who was accompanying me on my trip through Wenling City in Zhejiang suddenly pointed with his finger at the lush green mountains surrounding us and announced: “These are all hollow”. I was taken aback: “What do you mean, hollow?” My friend then explained that all the stone has been removed from the interior of these mountains.
I could not help but admire the wisdom of those ancient stonecutters. They would make a small entrance in the surface, in order to avoid the eroded upper layer of the rock, and then bore into the moun- tain body to get at the fine material deep within. Many mountains have been scarred and defaced by extraction of stone, but these ones here managed to keep their original appearance and diverse vegetation cover.
The Changyu Caves are located 12 kilometers northeast of Wenling, below Duxiu Peak. There are 28 different man-made cave complexes here, comprising 1,314 individual grottoes and caves, with the total area of over 16 square kilometers. The locals have an interesting way of referring to these caves. They stubbornly call them “dong” using a character “硐”. This character, pronounced with the first tone, in Chinese refers only to man-made caves, carved out of hard rock. The locals never refer to these caves using the other “dong” (洞), used far more commonly, which contains a radical for water and refers to limestone caves created by water erosion, pronounced with the second tone. The same locals also bluntly call these caves “stone block stores”. The local stonecutters, after a hearty meal, would start their task by punching an entrance into the cliff face half way up the mountain to be used as a kind of access corridor. Then they would carve vertically downwards. After a while, an exit would be cut to the outside below, sometimes still on the mountain, sometimes at its base below. This arrangement allowed much easier removal of stone blocks as the slabs could be dragged out of horizontally shaped mine, rather than removing them using suspension mechanisms from a vertically shaped one.
Wenling is a coastal city. Get to the top of a mountain and you will see the expanse of the sea, but the river transport was also flourishing here once
— both the river and sea transportation were used for moving the stone products out to the markets. Stonecutting up in the mountains, fishing down by the sea, these were the two foundations of the existence of the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of Wenling, and they were, in fact, intimately connected.
In the past, the fishing boat would be out at sea for as little as a fortnight, and as long as a few months. Leaving the harbor under full sail, they ran a risk of capsizing if the hulls were empty, and the old sea hands would use rock slabs as ballast to stabilize their boats. As the hull filled with shrimp and fish, the slabs were thrown overboard. On the triumphant return to the home harbor the fishermen would give the stonecutters gifts of fish, shrimp and crab, and get some more ballast as a return favor from their land brethren.
At the moment, four caves are open to the public in Changyu Caves complex — Guanxi Cave (Cave of Dawn Light), Shuiyun Cave (Cave of Water and Clouds), Chongguosi Cave and Lingxiao Cave (Touching the Clouds Cave). Looking from a distance, Guanxi Cave is basically one single sloping arch of a crack in the rock, and there only a short period of time when the evening light penetrates inside the cave, illuminating it, hence the name — Cave of Dawn Light.
Before entering the cave, listen a little to the natural sounds around you, and you will hear a small waterfall on the cliff to your left, falling into a pool so clear you can see all the way to the bottom. Having walked through a short tunnel, the passage suddenly opened up, and I stepped into a vast chamber with a high ceiling. This chamber was shaped like a giant bell over 30 meters high. People in the chamber looked like ants. I stopped there, astounded by its sheer size, when suddenly music erupted, I could hear the sonorous bamboo flutes and the jarring, sharp percussions. The Guanxi Cave houses a wellknown concert hall and the natural acoustics of the dome-shaped chamber do not require any additional electrical sound equipment.
With the help of a small torch, we went up the stone staircase on the side of the rock wall. After one hundred or so stairs later we veered left to a platform shaped like a fish scale, the start of a pitch black tunnel, leading into the secluded depth of the mountain. So dark was it inside that we would not have been able to see a thing if it had not been for a fan-shaped window cut through the rock to the outside. I could not help but admire the ancient stonecutters, who, when cutting this window managed to add artistic aesthetics to the purely practical need to have light in the depths of this tunnel.
Having finished our visit to the Guanxi Cave, we arrived at the Shuiyun Cave opposite it. Compared with the Guanxi, it was even grander. Having come inside, you see water pools everywhere, all interconnected. Making our way through the water mist, we
heard the bubbling of the water, and the subdued roar of the underground river flowing below. Having stopped for a rest, I noticed the strange color of the rock next me — graphite grey at the base, it was covered in circular or crescent-shaped dots, a pattern both beautiful and vivid. A hundred or so stairs later, we arrived at a vast natural “fresco” which was a sight to behold. Natural it might be, but it looked every inch a traditional Chinese painting, with masterly “brushwork” and “splash- ink” technique, and the classic motive of interlocking willow-branches. The tour guide explained that the color was the result of water penetrating and oxidising this rock, which had high ferromanganese content, over an immense period of time. The stonecutters then sheared off a cross-section, exposing this “art” to the world.
Shepan: A Honeycomb Island
There is another well-known stone quarry site — Shepan Island (Coiled Snake Island), lying in Sanmen Bay, off the coast of Taizhou City, about 18 kilometers from the county town seat. The stone from the island is soft and pliable, yet resilient, and of beautiful faint color, suitable for a variety of uses. The island’s location allows for very easy transportation and the beautiful local stone was sold not only in the neighboring county town, but exported as far as Japan, Korea and the countries of Southeast Asia.
One day in 1984, one Mr. Zhang, a local villager, drove his tractor off the road and into one of the roadside ponds. The pond was only a dozen square
meters large, and Zhang, having borrowed two water pumps, thought that he would pump all the water out and free his tractor in a few hours. To the people’s astonishment, the two pumps worked for eight days and nights straight, but the water did not go down in the slightest. The tractor vanished, never to be seen.
The secrets that Shepan Island kept were not revealed until 1997. The islanders needed stones to repair a sea wall damaged by a typhoon, and they decided to get them by blasting the mountainside with explosives. The explosion took half the mountain off, and once the dust settled, the people saw an extraordinary sight — the interior of their island had been completely dug out! The interior of the mountain, laid bare by the explosion, had the structure of a giant honeycomb or a colossal empty walnut shell. As far as the eye could see, there were grottoes of different sizes, small and large, horizontal and vertical. Some had water inside, and, in the water itself, there were yet more grottoes. The large ones were as big as auditoriums, the smaller ones just large enough to fit one person.
The islanders took a detailed inventory of their find. They counted almost 1,400 individual grottoes, and all the grottoes had ponds of different shapes. The water in the ponds was jade blue, crystal clear, glistening and shimmering in the sunshine. Small trees were swaying at the top of the grottoes, as if welcoming visitors. Water drops glided down the walls, nourishing the thick carpet of moss that encrusted the rock. People thought, that, because the ponds in these grottoes never ran dry, the water must have come from the sea. I tried the water from different such ponds, and it was fresh and sweet, impossible to have come from the sea. The explanation that remains is that all those ponds are interconnected and the total volume of water is too great for them to run dry.
When were these grottoes and ponds made then? Nobody really knows with certainty. A local villager called Yu Jingwei dug up three rusty ancient coins out of one of the grottoes. The coins were then dated to Han (202BC–220AD), Song (960–1279), and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties respectively. Does this
The stone materials excavated on Shepan Island are not common ones. They are a special variety of volcanic roc kcal led“tufa,”w it ha distinctive pink color. The socalled“she pan Stone” became the most ideal material for carving the stone windows that are frequently used in Zhejiang. The patterns of stone windows, such as opera figures, bats and other auspicious elements, vividly reflect the local culture.
Photo/ Yang Xiaoxuan
mean that these grottoes were, in fact, made as early as the Han?
Why did not the hollowed-out mountain collapse over the centuries? The experts say that the reason lies in the structure. The honeycomb is one of the most stable engineering structures, and also the arching roofs of the grottoes act as vaulted supports of a bridge, distributing very efficiently the load that they are bearing.
Longyou: A Submerged History
The remnants of the stonecutting industry can be found not just on the coast, but also in hinterland of Zhejiang.
Longyou Grottoes are located on the upper reaches of Qiangtang River within the boundaries of Quzhou County, below Fenghuang Mountain, three kilometers away from the county town of Longyou. Strictly speaking, Fenghuang is more a hill than a mountain, the total area it occupies is just 0.38 square kilometers. We walked around the foot of this hill, and saw about a dozen of pools about 20 square meters in size, their banks overgrown with grass, with red stones visible here and there through it.
The quarries we had mentioned before were always cut from the top of the mountain downwards, but here at Fenghuang, because of the small size of the hill and the thick vegetation, the quarry was cut from the foot of the hill downwards. You could not get there now, the storms and the floods filled the quarries with water, sealing them off. Now, everywhere you look you see ponds, there are 24 of them altogether.
The clean, pure water from the ponds was used by the local villagers for drinking, washing clothes and making food. Years went by and the ponds remain just as they had always been. In 1992, the idea to see what may be hidden at the bottom of those ponds, suddenly got hold of the villagers and they decided to drain the ponds to see.
Four water pumps worked for 17 days and nights before a pond was finally empty of water. Four villagers, using hand torches, wearily made their way into the complete darkness where not a beam of light could get through. This cave, later designated as Longyou Grotto No.2, was over 30 meters high, covering almost 1,200 square meters. On one side the wall was dead vertical as if sheared off by a clean stroke of an axe, on the other it slanted at a 45-degree angle. The traces of stonecutters work, smooth flowing lines of their chisels, were clearly visible. The villagers however, came away disappointed. They
found nothing, apart from mud, at the bottom of the cave.
The villagers were undaunted, they drained the neighbouring six grottoes. The largest was 3000 square meters in area, the smallest 300. All were about thirty meters high. The seven caves were completely isolated. Made by the same methods, their shapes were extremely similar with only minor differences, and the walls separating the neighboring caves were as thin as 50 centimeters in places.
The entrance to the grotto we came to visit was very small, about three or four square meters in size. Taking the new concrete stairs, laid down by the locals, we visited five grottoes, one after the other. Among the walls of Grotto No 2, one had drawings of horses, fish, birds and other animals, perhaps a stonecutter just could not resist exhibiting his hidden artistic talents, or could these drawings be totemic, symbolic? Looking up, I could see that the ceiling of the grotto formed a dome, and the dimensions and forms of the underground chamber — the slant of its walls, the sheer verticality of rock faces, the depth and the way the different chambers were connected were astounding. The vaulted ceiling of each grotto had a funnel-shaped skylight and it was through one of these that we got inside, the only way to do so.
In which dynasty were Longyou Grottos made? When were they abandoned? Opinions vary. One plausible version claims that the inhabitants of the State of Xu, under pressure from the State of Zhou, and led by King Yan, migrated to the south from modern Jiangsu, during the early Spring and Autumn Period (770–476BC), roaming around what is now Zhejiang. Even now the locations in Zhejiang, such as Jiaxing, Shaoxing, Ningbo, Zhoushan, Taizhou and Shuzhou all have ruins of temples and mausoleums honoring King Yan.
Some hold the opinion that it was the highly skilled Xu stonecutters who brought their skills with them to Zhejiang, and the grottoes are, in fact, the product of the work of sacrificing Xu people’s ancestors. Living in these rock “houses” was safe as they were fireproof, and grottoes were also a great place to
Legend Exploited ruins of quarries Unexploited ruins of quarries Provincial boundary City boundary The Main Ruins of Ancient Quarries in Zhejaing