Dis­cover spec­tac­u­lar legacy of Zhe­giang Stone­cut­ters

China Scenic - - Feature Explore - By Qian Guo­dan Pho­to­graphs by Ye Wen­long, and as cred­ited

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

Stone Win­dows

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

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