You may not have heard of the exiled Song Dynasty Chinese poet Su Shi, nicknamed Su Dongpo, but you’re likely familiar with the dish named for him: dongpo rou, or braised pork belly, the succulent hunk of meat topped off with a soft and sinful layer of fat. Legend has it that Dongpo, also a gastronome, invented the slow-cooked dish by accident; but no matter its origins, it eventually emerged as a popular Chinese delicacy — one so beloved that nearly 200 years ago, an anonymous Qing dynasty artist working for the emperor immortalized its oil-slicked form, sculpting a piece of jasper into a fleshy lump meticulously finished with wrinkles, dimples, and even a soy sauce-marinated rind.
Known as the “meat-shaped stone,” the just two-inch-tall sculpture is a major celebrity. In its permanent home at Taipei’s National Palace Museum, it receives over five million annual visitors who join snaking lines for a momentary glimpse. When it travelled to Japan in 2014 for just two weeks, nearly 6,000 people visited it daily. This year, the stone journeys out of Asia for the first time. It currently resides in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as part of the exhibition Emperors’ Treasures, presenting those in the area with what curator Jay Xu describe as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Like the over-150 other objects on display, all loaned from the National Palace Museum and all once hidden from the public inside the Forbidden City, the meat-shaped stone is a work with a mysterious past, alluring for its secrets aside from its masterly craftsmanship.
“We don’t know who exactly in the imperial household commissioned the meat-shaped stone, just that they must have been a serious foodie,” Xu told Hyperallergic, adding it would have been kept in a salon, perhaps with other personal treasures or scholarly items. “The stone emblematizes the Chinese pleasure in finding double or even triple meanings in poems, art objects, and even culinary delights. So if the stone were ever displayed with inks and calligraphy brushes, it could be a witty affiliation with a famous writer. Basically, no matter where the stone was or is displayed, it’s a conversation piece.
“But really, pork is a national obsession in China,” Xu added. “It accounts for something like two-thirds of the meat consumed there. In Chinese astrology, people born in the year of the pig are considered lucky, because it is said that they will always have plenty to eat. And just like Americans get grumpy when the price of gas rises, the Chinese feel the same way about pork: the Chinese government keeps 200,000 tons of frozen pork in a strategic reserve to help ease supplies when prices rise, just like how the United States has a strategic petroleum reserve.”
The meat-shaped stone is one-of-a-kind, although “delectable treasures” form their own sub-genre of Qing Dynasty-era sculpture, Xu said. The tender belly actually has a healthier companion at the National Palace: a glossy bok choy cabbage known as the Jadeite cabbage. At just over half-a-foot-long, it even features a locust and a katydid crawling around its green leaves. Just as that artist saw the potential of the jadeite stone’s natural hues that transitioned from white to green, whoever crafted the braised pork belly took advantage of jasper’s various colorings and textures.
“The stone is an example of ‘clever carving,'” Xu told Hyperallergic. “The artisan would have been expert enough to identify the organic characteristics of the material, in this case the natural striations in the jasper that looked like well-marbled pork belly, and to enhance or refine them through cutting, careful dying, and stippling so they are more obvious for casual observers like us to see.
“Because it is so hard, you almost have to grind it rather than cut or carve it and, like braising pork belly, it can be a time-consuming process.”
The artist behind the stone remains unknown as artisans of the period did not sign their works, instead branding them with various marks and seals that represented particular imperial workshops. A piece as exceptional as this one may even exist as the product of multiple hands. The stone itself is impressive, but what enhances its elegance is its golden stand, likely a later addition: it features rolling waves that cradle the pork and a base adorned with symmetrical lotus petals, which introduces a touch of religious devotion that contrasts with its whimsical, fleshy load.
In Emperors’ Treasures, the porous pork is displayed with other artifacts from the mid-to-late Qing court to explore how the tastes of various royalties may have influenced the development of Chinese art, Xu said. On view nearby, for instance, are the belongings of the Empress Dowager Cixi — one of the few women to ever rule China — who recruited female artists to her “Studio of Great Elegance.” The studio, under Cixi’s own direction, produced decorative ceramic works that are also on display. What is missing from the exhibition, sadly, is the Jadeite cabbage, which, together with the meat-shaped stone, “reflect both a more naturalistic and almost scientific turn in Chinese decoration from this later period of imperial patronage,” as Xu said. For now, you’ll just have to appreciate the little stone without its side dish.
Emperors’ Treasures continues at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA) through September 18.