Tour guides typically warn visitors who are entering the Summer Palace’s Hall of Happiness in Longevity not to photograph the large, dark and sleek stone within.
The fungus-shaped rock was named the Blue Iris Stone (青芝岫) by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). The mammoth 8-meter-long and 2-meter-wide boulder rests atop a support stand in the courtyard.
Aside from its odd shape, the large stone looks fairly unremarkable. Its terrible reputation comes from a second, less-flattering name: the Baijia Stone (败家石).
In Chinese, the word baijia is used to refer to a person whose extravagant spending brings ruin to his or her family.
Superstitious Chinese fear being robbed of all their luck or attracting bad luck if they photograph the stone. But the stone owes its ill reputation to its first owner, Mi Wanzhong.
Mi was a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) official with an unmatched talent for painting and writing. He was also an avid stone collector. The famous fungus-shaped stone was one of his discoveries in the area that is known today as Beijing’s Fangshan District.
Mi became entrance with the stone the first time he set eyes on it. He gasped with admiration at the marvel of nature while pondering how he could move it to his garden in Shaoyuan, what is today the west side of Peking University.
Eventually it occurred to him to try a technique used by builders on the Great Wall.
Mi hired laborers to cut a wide road into the mountain and dig wells along the road. When winter came, servants were ordered to draw water from the wells and sprinkle it on the road. An icy pavement formed and laborers were able to slide the stone along this smooth path.
However, Mi’s money ran out before he managed to get the stone to its destination. Mi had no choice but to abandon it in Liangxiang Town, Beijing.
That’s when people started calling it the Baijia Shi.
The lonely stone stood for years until spotted by Emperor Qianlong, who insisted that it have a place in his Garden of Clear Ripples.
The Garden of Clear Ripples was destroyed in 1860. In 1886, Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty started to rebuild it and renamed it the Summer Palace two years later.
In order to move the stone into the Hall of Happiness in Longevity, Qianlong decided to dismantle the palace doors. His mother stopped him, believing that the stone was responsible for Mi’s bankruptcy. She said breaking down the door to move the stone in would curse the whole royal family.
Emperor Qianlong was torn between his love of the stone and his desire to obey his mother. Fortunately, his eager official Liu Yong came up with a plan.
Liu advised the emperor to tell his mother that the stone resembled a lingzhi, a magical healing mushroom that stands for longevity and prosperity. He argued that placing the stone in the Hall of Happiness in Longevity would bless the Qing dynasty.
Qianlong’s mother was convinced and finally accepted the “unlucky stone.”
Delighted about settling the matter, Emperor Qianlong had the stone’s more positive name engraved on its side.
Today, visitors appreciate the stone and listen to its story. The Blue Iris Stone just stands quietly in the famous palace and watches people come and go.