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This work is fashioned from a single piece of a semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli and belongs to a type of decorative Chinese art called engraved stone (shanzi). The two large sides of this stone feature a landscape of pine trees dispersed throughout a mountain villa. Artfully carved in compliance with the stone’s natural shape and form, the work includes a poem on each side carved in intaglio. These two poems were composed spontaneously by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) upon his receiving inspiration during his visit to the Mountain of Myriad Pines (Wansong shan). The characters of one of the poems were gilded after being incised into the rich blue stone.
Lapis lazuli is primarily composed of silicate minerals and ranks from 5 to 6 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. The main color of the stone varies from purplish blue to deep blue. Because it contains a small amount of pyrite, the intense blue hue of the stone is laced with gold-colored strands and speckles that resemble stars in the night sky. Since antiquity, lapis lazuli has been a medium for sculptors. For example, archaeologists have unearthed lapis lazuli figurines in the shape of various beasts from a Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) tomb.
Qing dynasty rulers primarily valued the stone due to how its deep blue hue represented the sky. It is, therefore, also described as the stone of “imperial blue” or “precious blue”. As such, it became an important material for carving various items used during the ritual sacrifice to Heaven. As Collected Statutes of the Great Qing (Da Qing huidian) records, “Regarding the materials for the emperor’s court beads and other accessories, lapis lazuli shall be used exclusively for [the sacrifices] at the Temple of Heaven; yellow jade shall be used at the Temple of Earth; coral shall be used at the Temple of the Sun; and white jade should be used at the Temple of the Moon.” The Qing court established these regulations for the use of the colors of various stones to represent heaven, earth, the sun, and the moon. Among these four objects of worship, heaven was believed to be almighty, thus paramount significance was attached to lapis lazuli.
Lapis lazuli is also the source of ultramarine—one of the major mineral pigments. Ultramarine is found throughout the murals and painted sculptures of the Mogao Caves and the Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu Province. Mined in countries such as Afghanistan, Russia, Chile, and Canada, lapis lazuli is not native to China“s mineral topography, and ancient and modern Chinese records show no sign of lapis lazuli mines in Chinese regions. In ancient times, the stone was mainly imported from Afghanistan and used to produce exquisite works of art.