Traditional Chinese Woodworking #3: The Mystery of Sung Hua Stones

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Blog entry by chscholz posted 08-12-2009 03:47 PM 4273 reads 0 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 2: Preparing stock Part 3 of Traditional Chinese Woodworking series Part 4: Chinese Hammers: the Common Unknown Tool »

Last week I had the distinct pleasure to visit the Gu Gong in Taipei (aka. the National Palace Museum or short NPM).
In fact the NPM is one of the great museums and owns many fine examples of Chinese cultural heritage. Major sections of the museum include paintings, calligraphy, rare books, porcelains/ceramics, jades and curios

Many of the items on exhibit are extremely rare. For example in the ceramics section one can admire 21 items of Ju Ware, i.e. fine porcelain with a characteristic greenish-blue glaze. Less than 70 pieces of Ju Ware are worldwide in existence. Or how about a the equivalent to Gutenbergs Bible? The Rare Books sections host volumes such as an Exegeses on the Book of Mencius, printed many hundred years before Gutenberg (Ok, I know, Mencius was not a deity and Gutenberg did not print an exegeses).

Unfortunately the NPM does not host a lot of items related to woodworking and even fewer items related to hand tools.

Worth mentioning is the Permanent Exhibit 108: Splendors of Qing Furniture This exhibit hosts a few exquisite pieces of fine Chinese furniture. All furniture is perfectly executed and highly decorated. In contrast to so-called Ming furniture that pursues refined simplicity during a certain period during Qing Dynasty highly ornamental embellishments ad carvings were all the rage. Nevertheless, all furniture is made out of Huang Hua Li or even Zitan. Both are precious species of wood, very dense, gnarly and excruciatingly hard to carve. Zitan (aka. red sandalwood) is an extremely rare species of wood what was worth its weight in gold. One researcher argues that zitan was mentioned in the Bible [1]. In fact, recently a well-known boutique plane maker started offering certain planes with Zitan infills.

The few tools that are on exhibit at the NPM are in the paleontology section (very few images of tools on the website). The equivalent to our own flint stone in China was apparently jade. For us Westerners Jade is just another semi-precious stone, for many Taiwanese (and Chinese and I suppose South-East Asian in general) jade is roughly the equivalent of diamonds in our own culture. In the bronze section on can admire a sword made of laminated bronze, i.e. bronze with different mixtures of constitutive elements for the cutting edges and for the sword body.

Also noteworthy is the Curios section. In this section on can find all sorts of trinkets, gifts to the emperor with the hope that the favor will be returned in some form or another (in modern terms lobbying and/or bribery). Many of the trinkets are of impeccable craftsmanship and come in custom fitted wooden boxes. In fact, if you ever run out of ideas on how to design yet another jewelry box, the NPM has a wealth of ideas that are rather unique. How about a hiding a hidden compartment in a hidden compartment?

The most interesting item in the curio section (and possibly in the whole museum) are the Sung Hua ink stones.. The story is that in 1662 Emperor Kang Xi enjoyed the look and feel of Sung Hua stones. Sung Hua stones were used as sharpening stones. He had the Imperial Works carve Sung Hua stones into inkstones. Subsequently Sung Hua ink stones have become very popular as evidenced by a large collection of such stones in the NPM.
In my opinion it is highly implausible that the Emperor of China pokes around grungy old village carpentry shacks and somehow sees an old Sung Hua stone sitting somewhere in a dusty corner. It is much more plausible that the stone that the Emperor saw was one of the finest sharpening stones that the Empire had to offer, possibly in use in one of the cabinet shops of the Imperial Works. With exception of Hommel [2] I have never seen anything mentioning about how Chinese woodworkers sharpened their tools.
Of course that rises the question how good Sung Hua stones are for sharpening woodworking tools. Are they comparable to fine Aransas stones the finest Japanese water stones? I certainly do not recommend to beak into the NPM and sharpen your favorite plane blade on the 1737-model inkstone, sure would be interesting to know though.

[1] Schafer, Edward H., Rosewood, Dragon’s Blood, and Lac. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1957), pp. 129-136
[2] Hommel, Rudolf P., China at Work, Jan. 1969

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

3 comments so far

View SimonSKL's profile


185 posts in 3233 days

#1 posted 08-12-2009 11:25 PM

Very interesting and informative. Thanks for posting.

-- Simon, Danville, IL

View jockmike2's profile


10635 posts in 4241 days

#2 posted 08-13-2009 04:51 PM

Very informative narration. Sounds like a wonder to behold, or at least a nice place to visit. m

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View Billp's profile


804 posts in 4194 days

#3 posted 08-14-2009 04:16 AM

What an experience thanks for sharing, I would love to go to China.

-- Billp

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