With over 3,000 years of recorded history maybe it should not be surprising that China has a museum containing nearly 3,000 pieces of inscribed stone. Those stones are called steles, which is a small monolith with carved writings or low-relief sculpture on one face. Like many things in China, these particular examples are extraordinary.
The museum is located in downtown Xi’an on Sanxue Street. The examples of Chinese calligraphy housed there have been lovingly gathered and cared for over many centuries. There are over 2,000 engraved tablets from the Han dynasty alone.
Originally constructed in 1078AD, the museum is now a labyrinth of six corridors, seven rooms and eight pavilions holding the huge collection. It is unique among storehouses of artifacts in its concentration on this one art.
The collection grew as samples were added over the centuries from the Song, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Extensively renovated in 1937, the museum and contents took on the present shape.
Chinese calligraphy has been practiced for over 5,000 years and many of its finest examples are housed in the museum. Among many top notch works, there is the Cao Quan stele, written in Han script in 185AD. Others of immense historical importance are also part of the collection, such as the Nestorian stele and the Monk Bu Kong.
The steles from Langya originate from Lin Xi during the Eastern Jin dynasty in the early 4th century. They provide evidence of the changes in Chinese calligraphy that were beginning during that time. Elegant, yet forceful, these samples influenced many generations of carvers.
Many of the steles are as important for their calligraphy as their content. The Chinese language is pictographic – its symbols are not just letters as English or Roman languages are. Like Egyptian hieroglyphics, they have an artistic element as well. Through the ages, many of these stones show variations in style that make them works of art in written language, as well as historical documents. The Ouyang Xun steles are examples of this.
Some steles are commemorative plaques praising some great man. Some are religious texts. The 12 Confucian Classics, carved around 837AD, guided much of those practicing the religion in feudal times. The Book of Changes, the Book of Rites and others were not merely displays of art for the idle rich, but sacred texts that defined a philosophy for millions. In the 2nd Exhibition Hall similar steles are stored constituting the Holy Buddhist Scriptures.
Epitaphs, stories, scriptures and other forms of writing show that the Forest of Stone Steles Museum is more than just a collection of ancient lithographic oddities. It is a treasure trove of the history of a complex people and their culture down through the ages.