Forest of Stone Tablets Museum

The Forest of Stone Tablets Museum, a courtyard-styled structure, is situated on the site of the Confucian Temple of Sanxue Street, Xi’an. It served as the Imperial Ancestral Temple in the Tang Dynasty, and later became the Confucian Temple in the Song Dynasty. In 1950, it was extended into the museum that greets us today. One may wonder why its two gates are facing east and west respectively instead of facing south as most of the traditional ones. As a matter of fact, all Confucian temples are opened east and west. The East Gate is referred to as the Gate of Courtesy, while the West Gate, the Gate of Righteousness.

The museum covers an area of 30,000 square metres or more. The exhibition area can be divided into two sections: stone tablets and stone carvings.

The Forest of Stone Tablets
The Forest of Stone Tablets was set up in 1087. Over 3,000 tablets are preserved ranging from various tablets to tomb stones covering the Qin and the Han dynasties to the Qing Dynasty. After constant renovation and replenishment by each dynasty, it is now considered the one place reserving the most ancient stone tablets in China. The tablets are ranged in great numbers like trees in a forest, hence its name Forest of Stone Tablets. The name "Stone Forest" was determined in the early years of Qing Dynasty. The museum is not only a treasure house of the calligraphy art of China, but also a collection of the ancient Chinese classics and literature, engraving designs that have represented the historical record of cultural exchanges between China and other countries. The stone tablets recorded cultural achievements ever scored in ancient China and cultural exchanges between China and other countries. In March, 1961, the State Council promulgated that the Stone Forest was a national monument.

The museum now has seven exhibition rooms, sic epitaph corridors and one tablet pavilion

Stone-base Classic of Filial Piety
In front of the first exhibition room is a Tablet Pavilion specially built for the Classic of Filial Piety. This tablet is the largest in the Stone Forest. It was engraved in 745 AD in the handwriting of Li Longji, the seventh emperor of the Tang Dynasty. The Classic of Filial Piety was compiled by a disciple of Confucius, Zeng Seng, after attending Confucius' lectures. Emperor Xuanzong wrote a preface to the classic with the purpose of showing his wish to administrate the country by advocating the principles of Filial Piety. The tablet is made up of four pieces of stone and a base under it, therefore it is called "Stone-base Classic of Filial Piety".

The first exhibition room
The museum has seven exhibition rooms. The first exhibition room consists of Kai Cheng Stone Classics carved during the Kai Cheng period (883 AD) of the Tang Dynasty. At that time, copying was more common than printing. Then doctrine of Confucius and Mencius was the ideological basis of feudal society, and the classics were required readings for intellectuals. To prevent copying errors, the feudal rulers employed lots of sculptors to carve the 12 classics on stone tablets. It took them three years to finish 114 tablets of 228 sides, and Kai Cheng Stone Classics now are the most complete set that have ever been preserved. And they are also called " The Heaviest Books in the World". These 12 classics contain altogether 650,252 characters. In the Qing Dynasty, another classic "Mencius" was engraved on 17 pieces of stones with 30,000 characters. This and 12 others are together called "Thirteen Classics".

The second exhibition room
This room houses the most famous specimens of the Tang calligraphy and the great historical tablets that reflect the cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries.

The Nestorian Tablet
The Nestorian Tablet tells how the Jing religion of Da Qin Empire was introduced to China. Da Qin was the name that the Chinese called the Roman Empire in ancient times and Jing religion was one sect of Christian religion called Nestorianism. The tablet describes the process of the spreading of Nestorianism, and its essence, ceremony and the activities of the missionaries in China. The tablet records the cultural and political contacts between China and Syria, Iran, Arab and some other countries. The words carved on the tablet are Syrian characters.

Yan Zhenqing's calligraphy
The other tablets in the room are samples of calligraphy. The one in the regular style was written by Yan Zhenqing, the famous calligrapher in the Tang Dynasty. He combined the characteristics of the official script that was popular in the Han Dynasty and the small seal script used in the Qin Dynasty and then created a new style that looked plump, smooth, powerful, vigorous and also had a rustic simplicity and majestic appearance. Each one of his characters would look like a strong lion sitting on the ground. His calligraphy has been used as specimens for over a thousand years till this day.

The third exhibition room
In this room the development of Chinese calligraphy is on display. The Chinese characters were developed from the inscription carved on animal bones and tortoise shells of the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou dynasties from 21st century BC to 11th century BC. At that time, the inscriptions were just pictographs. After some hundred years, the pictographic characters were developed into the big seal style. Later on, when the First Emperor of the Qin unified China, he ordered Prime Minister Li Si to simplify the big seal style into an easier form, known as the small seal style. Even nowadays, this form is still used by the calligraphers in seal carving. On the basis of the small seal style, a new kind of script form was created by the end of the Qin Dynasty-the official script. As it was originally a product of slaves' drawings with sticks, it is also known as the slaves' script.

The evolution from seal to official style is a revolution of Chinese characters in their forms. Official script became popular in the Han Dynasty.

A tablet inscribed in regular script can also be seen. This kind of writing began in the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD). It became mature and gained popularity during the Sui and Tang dynasties all made it a rule that official documents and imperial examination papers should be written in regular script. This room also houses some tablets inscribed in running style and cursive style.

The fourth exhibition room houses both calligraphy and paintings. The rest three exhibition rooms contain the stone tablets carved during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

The exhibition hall of stone carving art
This exhibition hall was built in 1963. It contains more than 70 stone representative works especially chosen from the masterpieces of the Han and the Tang dynasties. The stone carving in the Han Dynasty is vigorous and simple while the stone carving in the Tang Dynasty is fine and mellow. They all display the enterprising spirit of the Chinese nation. The works of stone art are divided into two parts: mausoleum stone carving and religious stone carving and they are arranged in a chronological order.

The six steeds
The six famous steeds were ordered by Tang Emperor Taizong (559-649 AD) to be carved in relief in memory of his six war steeds. They had adorned the emperor's tomb, Zhaoling, for 1,200 years until 1914, when an American, Carl W. Bishop had them smashed into smaller pieces and tried to carry them away. He succeeded in absconding with two of them which are now exhibited in the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. The other four were repaired and removed here together with reproductions of the missing two for exhibition. The six horses were painted by the most famous painter Yan Liben in the Tang Dynasty and sculpted by some skillful folk craftsmen. One horse was wounded with an arrow while he went to attack the enemy with his master Emperor Taizong. The sculpture shows this precise moment. The horse, with its head lifted, the front legs standing straight and the back legs lightly crooked, showed that he was suffering a great pain but that he was also an extraordinary horse.


Opening Hours: Summer: 8:00 - 18:45 
                              Winter: 8:00 - 18:00

Ticket Price: CNY 35