Why China's rock markets draw a crowd
Would you spend US$25,000 for a simple rock?
Odds are you wouldn't, but with the economy booming in China, plenty of collectors are eyeing just such treasures.
And at just such gaudy price tags.
More than 300 rock markets and exhibitions are held throughout China annually, according to the China Stone Appreciation Association, generating an estimated RMB 20 billion (US$3.17 billion) each year.
Works of nature
Streetside rock shops and traveling exhibitions draw a crowd of curious onlookers, but serious petrologists -- or "rock hounds" -- tend to be middle-aged males. Buyers are often limited to the few who can afford the often hefty price tags.
While such rocks come in countless shapes, sizes, and colors, what they all share is a natural beauty, untouched by human hands.
"Each rock is a work of art, like a painting of mountains and rivers," explains Huang Kunlong (黄坤龙), sitting in his booth at a rock exhibition in Jinan, capital of Shandong province.
A 41-year-old former physician, Huang runs a private rock museum in Fujian, a coastal province in southeast China.
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To the connoisseur, the worn and rugged surfaces of rocks resemble a miniature landscape. To heighten the resemblance for the untrained eye, Huang's rocks are often dotted with tiny porcelain trees and pagodas.
Hefty price tags
Many rocks come complete with poetic-sounding titles, and are sold at prices rivaling those found in any artist's gallery.
"Happiness arrives at the Gate" is a jet-black stone vaguely resembling a perching bird, with an asking price of RMB 66,000.
Standing next to it is the 1.8-meter-tall "Red Phoenix Sunrise," rising up like a cloud from its wooden pedestal. The price tag reads RMB 160,000.
Shopkeeper Lü Zhenyou (吕振友) has brought both pieces along with 20 smaller ones from his mineral-rich home province of Guangxi, in southwest China, to a traveling rock market in Shandong in northeast China.
A gray-haired veteran of the rock business clad in rumpled army fatigues, Lü says that he is willing to negotiate with prospective buyers. The final price depends on the customer's bargaining skill.
Lingbi stones (灵璧石) from Anhui province hold the honor of "the greatest stone under heaven," a title bestowed by the 18th-century Qing emperor Qianlong, who was an avid rock collector.
"Their beauty is in their ugliness," declares 34 year-old vendor Tai Hui (邰辉) with a laugh. Having brought his wares to Shandong, the Anhui-native is surrounded by the lumpy grey and black Lingbi crisscrossed with deep fissures.
Another popular stone comes from Taishan, a mountain in central Shandong and the holiest of China's five sacred peaks.
White mineral deposits form patterns that dance across the smooth grey stones. The most popular and highly-prized Taishan stones sport patterns resembling Chinese characters or some sort of recognizable image.
Ma Wenqing (马文庆), a vendor from far-western Qinghai province, says that collectors are keen to buy rocks that call to mind dragons flying through the clouds, with such stones typically selling for RMB 10,000 or more.
A traveling salesman, Ma oversees a steady stream of visitors passing through his tent outside Jinan's sprawling Antique City, an hour's drive from Taishan.
'A stone arrives and good fortune appears'
In addition to their beauty, Taishan stones are said to carry the aura of the sacred peak. An ancient symbol of permanence and stability, a piece of the mountain is supposed to bring calm amid the turmoil and unpredictability of life.
"A stone arrives and good fortune appears," says Ma, reciting an ancient proverb. "The home is peaceful and misfortune is cast away."
Collector Li Shucheng (李树成) invokes the same saying to explain his own attraction to China’s rock culture.
"There's no way to prove it," Li admits, "but this way of thinking has been around for 5,000 years, so it must have some sound reasoning behind it."
Li has come to the bustling rock market outside Jinan's Antique City, the latest stop on his trip along the rock enthusiast's circuit across China.
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Li, who is well into middle age, describes his interest in stones as a part of his childhood upbringing, a family inheritance passed down from his father and grandfather.
While collectors' heads are growing grayer, the sight of families bringing their children for a stroll through a weekend market suggests that rock hounds are going to survive for a few more generations to come.
Details for the rock markets appear below the images.
Most of Jinan's rock vendors can be found at the city's two main antique markets:
Jinan Yaowanglou Antique City (济南药王楼古玩城), 20 Donggongshang He Lu 东工商河路20号; +86 531 8587 2085; open daily, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Yingxiongshan Cultural Market (英雄山文化市场), 46 Ma’anshan Lu 马鞍山路46号; +86 531 8209 5402; open daily, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.