Chinese collectors love them, and regions are competing over who has the best; ‘just like pieces of pork freshly plucked from a pot’.

Some Chinese rock collectors prefer jade, others prettily crenelated limestone. Jiang Sui’an prefers stones that look like pieces of pork.

Stones that turn up in riverbeds around Mr. Jiang’s home have a rosy or caramel-colored hue, making them resemble pieces of meat. They “look just like pieces of pork freshly plucked from a pot, some stewed, others braised or deep fried,” says Mr. Jiang, who has collected hundreds over the years.


They originate on “Meat-Rock Mountain.” When storms come, the rocks are swept down to the river, where they are picked up by the many collectors here in the hills of central China. Lushan boasts a museum dedicated to meat rocks and plans another. A local meat-rock research committee was formed last year and now has hundreds of members. Mr. Jiang’s expertise has been called on to develop official classifications for what makes a good meat rock.

Not so fast. Lushan’s bid to be the center of meat-rock culture is landing with a thud with collectors in other parts of China whose rocks also resemble meat. They say Mr. Jiang’s classification system favors Lushan’s rocks.

“Of course we object,” says Zhang Yaowen, 59, a meat-rock collector in a north China county also vying for recognition. “If Lushan wants to spread their standard throughout the country, that’s not possible.”

More is at stake than bragging rights. Lushan and other local governments hope meat rocks will draw investment and tourists. Across China, various governments seeking both have seized on monikers ranging from “Land of Donkey-Hide Gelatin”—a traditional Chinese remedy—to “Land of Big Drums,” which a southern region known for its plus-size drums has embraced.

One of Mr. Yuan’s meat rocks. He also has a rock that looks like a potato. (The apples are real.) PHOTOS: YUAN ZIMING; TE-PING CHEN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
One of Mr. Yuan’s meat rocks. He also has a rock that looks like a potato. (The apples are real.) PHOTOS: YUAN ZIMING; TE-PING CHEN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Development has lagged in Lushan, a mountainous region where farmers hawk mushrooms and honey roadside. “Meat rocks are a resource we can develop to promote the economy,” says Xing Chunyu, vice-chair of a local political advisory body.

Nationwide, prices for meat-rock specimens have boomed, helped in part by the country’s state broadcaster, which in recent years has aired multiple segments spotlighting meat rocks. Stones bearing the most striking resemblance to meat can sell for thousands of dollars.

“Everyone can appreciate meat rocks,” says Yuan Ziming, a collector from the northeast city of Tianjin who, like many, prefers to photograph his treasures on plates with real vegetables to boost their verisimilitude. (He also has a favorite stone that resembles a potato.)

Lushan’s guidelines, which were published by the provincial government late last year, classify meat rocks into more than a dozen subcategories. These include definitions for what kinds of rocks look like beef, bacon, and chicken and suggest stones should appear to have fatty meat, lean meat and skin, with pores, to be considered high-quality. Rocks are graded on a 100-point scale.

Few places may be able to match all those attributes, critics of Lushan’s standards say. Some, like Liuzhou, in the south, carve their rocks, which purists like Mr. Jiang frown on. Size also matters in Lushan’s standards. “Some claim their rocks are pork shoulders, but they aren’t even as big as a fist!” says Mr. Jiang.

Jiang Sui’an looks for meat rocks in Lushan. PHOTO: TE-PING CHEN
Jiang Sui’an looks for meat rocks in Lushan. PHOTO: TE-PING CHEN

China’s appreciation of meat rocks is centuries old, part of a tradition among scholars and connoisseurs who seek out stones in the service of meditation or beauty, prized for their resemblance to everything from mountains to mythical creatures. In the case of meat rocks, the stones contain varying degrees of quartz and silica; high-iron content in some brings out a reddish hue. Riverbeds and hot springs add polish to the finishes.

The world’s most famous meat rock is a piece of jasper carved to resemble a slice of braised pork belly. A gift to a Qing Dynasty emperor some 300 years ago, it rests on a gold stand in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum and is featured on postcards and museum memorabilia.

Many Chinese meat-rock collectors say Taiwan’s meat-shaped stone is inferior to local specimens. Taiwan’s stone “doesn’t have any lean meat,” notes Mr. Zhang, the collector from northern China. By contrast, he says, stones from his county, Kangbao, contain darker stripes of lean meat, as well as pale stripes suggesting succulent layers of fat. They are deeper in color, Mr. Zhang says than those found in Lushan.

Like other enthusiasts, he is fond of reminiscing about the first time he saw meat rocks, in his case back in the countryside in 1981: “It was like the whole field was covered with pieces of pork!”

Drafting Lushan’s rock standards wasn’t easy, says Mr. Jiang, 65. The task involved heated debates over nomenclature, including whether the rocks should be referred to as “meat rocks”—as they have long been called—or “meat-shaped rocks.” The latter, he says, won out: “It sounds more scientific that way.”

He says Lushan’s standards can be a reference point for others but aren’t intended to be prescriptive.

Huang Weiping, from Liuzhou, says meat rocks shouldn’t have any standards at all, and that they are firmly a matter of taste. While Liuzhou’s rocks wouldn’t hold up well by Lushan’s standards, given that they are carved, he says that doesn’t diminish their quality. “For those who’ve just begun playing with meat rocks, ours are very good for their price.”

He boasts of their deep red color, saying that they look like raw meat. “Cooked-meat rocks aren’t so appealing, they aren’t so bright and beautiful,” he says.

Back in Lushan, meat-rock aficionado Liang Peng says he hopes their stones can help put the county on the map. In 2015, he founded the China Lushan Meat-Rock Museum, where slabs of rocks—some the size of small boulders—sit carefully plated inside glass cases. It sees a slow trickle of visitors, mostly meat-rock enthusiasts from elsewhere in China.

“We aren’t a big city like Beijing or Shanghai,” Mr. Liang says. “But our meat rocks are the country’s finest. We should be proud.”

Liang Peng, left, and Mr. Jiang at the China Lushan Meat-Rock Museum. PHOTO: TE-PING CHEN