Soapstone or steatite, is officially known as talc. In Chinese it is called hua shi, which literally translates to ‘slippery stone’. As its name suggests, it is very soft, smooth and slippery to the touch. In composition it is a basic magnesium silicate, found in veins or as loose boulders, often occurring with similarly composed minerals such as serpentine. It comes in many colours, ranging from dark brown to lighter yellow and cream hues. The natural inclusions in the stone are often used to great effect in the carving.
Being one of the softest of all stones, it is ideal for small scale intricate sculptures. As with jade craftsmen, much of the skill of the soapstone carver was in identifying the stone suitable for the subject and the subject suitable for the stone. Sadly in Chinese material culture, soapstone falls behind jade, and other materials such as bamboo and ivory; so there is very little contemporary documentary evidence describing how it was worked or its craftsmen.
The raw materials could be found widely in China, attested by the general distribution of both the materials and skills. By in the Ming & Qing dynasties, two predominant types of soapstone are named after their main geographical sources: ‘Qingtian Stone’ and ‘Shoushan stone’. Both these places are in the South Eastern coastal regions, which from the late 16th century also appears to be the main area renowned for this craft.
Soapstone carvings appeared relatively early in European collections. This was due to Western merchants who, from the 16th century onwards, traded them in south-eastern coastal carving centres, such as Fujian and Guangdong. These objects were not specifically made for export, but carved for the domestic trade, available to Chinese and foreigner alike. The religious or symbolic significance of the figures was probably lost on the Europeans, who admired them for their exotic charm.