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Chinese cinnabar.

For thousands of years a mercury-mining region centered on Wanshan, in Guizhou Province, has produced cinnabar ore, ornamental and "medicinal" cinnabar, and cinnabar crystal specimens which clearly are the world's finest. The reappearance of Chinese cinnabar on the collector market in the late 1980's was the vanguard of the present abundance of Chinese collector minerals; at that time, as now, cinnabar specimens were coming in a variety of habits from several distinct occurrences in the Chinese mercury belt.



Chinese cinnabar, like Chinese realgar and stibnite, is very popular with mineral collectors because the crystals come in a variety of habits, display attractive colors, and can be quite large. Also, because cinnabar occurs in several deposits scattered over a wide area, specimens may show varying mineral associations. Cinnabar was the earliest of the significant Chinese minerals to have appeared on the international mineral market after the mid-1980's, and many museums and private collections in America, Europe and worldwide today own one or more Chinese cinnabar specimens. Nevertheless, detailed information on specific cinnabar localities in China has not been generally available in the Western world.

Cinnabar is the most important ore of mercury, and such deposits are relatively abundant in China. According to the Editorial Committee of Chinese Natural Resources (1996), China has 81,400 tonnes of recoverable mercury reserves, making it the third richest in mercury of all countries in the world. One hundred and three mercury deposits have been noted by geologists in 13 provinces of the country. The deposits in Guizhou Province account for 40% of the total number; Shaanxi and Sichuan are the next richest provinces. The most significant mercury mines are Wanshan, Tongren, Wuchuan and Danzhai in Guizhou Province; Xinhuang in Hunan Province; Yangsikeng in Sichuan Province; and Xunyang in Shaanxi Province.

Most of the Chinese mercury deposits are low-temperature hydrothermal, strata-bound orebodies hosted by carbonate rocks; less than 10% are hosted by siliceous clastic rocks and igneous rocks (Liu et al., 1996). In most mercury deposits, cinnabar is common as massive material within the host rocks, and crystals are rare and very small. Nearly all good crystals of Chinese cinnabar are found within the belt extending from the Tongren-Wanshan area of Guizhou Province to Fenghuang County in Hunan Province: the so-called Tongren-Fenghuang mercury belt (Wang and Hu, 1989), the best and largest crystals coming chiefly from the Yanwuping and Yunchangping mining areas. This article will deal only with localities within the Tongren-Fenghuang belt.


The Tongren-Fenghuang belt of mercury deposits crosses the border between Hunan and Guizhou provinces, from Xinhuang in Hunan to Tongren in Guizhou in the southeast, then to Chatian and Machong, Fenghuang, in Hunan, in the northeast. This mercury-bearing area is 150 km long and 5 to 10 km wide, and its measured reserves of mercury account for 50% of the total mercury reserves of China (Wang and Hu, 1989). The main mining areas in this belt include Jiudiantang, Xiangjiadi, Wanshan, Lengfengdong, Yanwuping, Yunchangping (Dadongla), Hepingzhen, Chatian and Houziping. Each of these mines has produced at least a few cinnabar crystals, but most of the crystals are very small (<0.5 mm). Nearly all of the larger and finer crystals have been found in the mines lying in the belt's central segment, most notably the Wanshan, Yanwuping, Yunchangping and Chatian mines. The first three of these lie within the area of Tongren City, Guizhou Province, while the Chatian mine lies in Fenghuang County, Hunan Province


Tongren City, representing a prefecture of Guizhou Province, embraces 18,023 square kilometers of urban and rural areas. (Tongren means "copper kernel.") Tongren has a population of 3.75 million, encompassing 26 different nationalities including Han, Tujia, Miao, Tong and Gela. The region is very beautiful, and offers many attractive sites to visit. In the west is Mt. Fanjingshan (the name means "Forever Pure Land" in Chinese). With an elevation of 2,572 meters, Fanjingshan is the highest mountain in Tongren and indeed in all of Guizhou. In 1986, the mountain was classified as a National Reserve, and in the same year it became part of the "Man and Biosphere" nature preserve network of UNESCO. Abundant vegetation grows on the mountain: more than 3,000 species of plants, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Twenty-one kinds of high-altitude plants, including the dove tree, are listed as nationally protected species. Also, 382 species of vertebrate animals have been identified on Mt. Fanjingshan, of which 14, including the Guizhou golden monkey and South China tiger, are nationally protected. And Fanjingshan is a sacred mountain for Buddhists; 48 Buddhist temples existed here during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

About 17 kilometers southeast of Tongren City lies Nine-Dragon Cave, considered one of the top ten attractions of Guizhou Province. A legend says that a long time ago, six yellow dragons living on the Liulong Hill (Six-Dragon Hill) invited three black dragons living in the nearby Jinjiang River to a meeting in a cave. When the nine dragons entered the cave, all saw it as a wonderful place, and each one wanted to live in it all alone. They began to quarrel and fight. A thousand years later the nine dragons died in the cave and turned into colorful stalagmites and stalactites. Nine-Dragon Cave is 70 to 100 meters wide, 30 to 70 meters high, and 2258 meters deep, and boasts a hundred beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

Economically Tongren is dominated by agriculture and forestry, but it is also rich in mineral resources. Coal, mercury, manganese, lead/zinc, potassium, barite and marble deposits have been found there, and mining activities began thousands of years ago.

The mercury mines lie mainly in the southwestern part of the prefecture. The principal mining companies were Wanshan Mercury Mining and Tongren Mercury Mining--both are state-owned, and both went bankrupt in 2001 and 1997 respectively. Wanshan Mercury Mining's headquarters are situated in the town of Wanshan, 25 km south of Tongren city and 350 km northeast of Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou Province. Wanshan has a population of 70,000 people, most of whom used to be associated with the mining company. Before its bankruptcy in 2001, the Wanshan Mercury Mining Company owned 6 mines and 3 subsidiaries. The mines are mainly located in Wanshan and Yanwuping, in a mining area measuring about 15 km east to west and 35 km north to south. All mines can be reached by road, although some stretches in rural areas are unpaved. In its heyday the Wanshan mercury mine was the biggest cinnabar-producing mine in the world. Currently, only a few small private mines are in operation, producing mercury ore and cinnabar crystals.

The former Tongren Mercury Mining Company had its headquarters in Yunchangping town, and its mine excavations are scattered in Lula, Dadongla, Hongshuidong and Huilongxi. Since 1997 these mines have either been inactive or have been run by privately owned companies. Because the orebodies are very shallow, and many crop out on the surface, small-scale open cuts and tunnels can be seen all over the mining area. During the last two years many lustrous, gemmy cinnabar crystals were found in this area, mainly in drifts and open cuts near the Hongshuidong, Huilongxi and Masaxi adits.

Fenghuang County in Hunan Province is also a tourist destination because of its spectacular geography and diverse nationalities. Fenghuang means "phoenix" in Chinese: the county is named for a phoenix-like hill in its southwestern part. An area of about 1,757 square kilometers dominated by mountains and valleys is inhabited by 370,000 people of Miao, Han, Tujia and Hui nationalities, the Miao people making up a majority. The county has been a military and political center of western Hunan for over a thousand years. Fenghuang town, the county seat, is a scenic place with many historical spots; its architecture is a spectacular mix of Miao and Han styles, and a unique South Chinese Great Wall (141 km long) runs through the town. To the south there is a national forest and park, and to the north lies the famous Wulingyuan (Zhangjiajie) sandstone forest resort.

The cinnabar-producing area of Fenghuang County is centered on Chatian, a small town about 30 kilometers southwest of the county seat. At the heart of a mining region inhabited by about 30,000 people, Chatian can be reached by a narrow but mostly paved motorway. Farmers and miners are the predominant sorts of workers here; some of the latter once worked in the mines of Guizhou Province, just over the border. Mercury mining and trade began here fully four thousand years ago, and there are hundreds of small, abandoned pits and tunnels scattered about the countryside. The major mines are located at Mazi'ao and Hehuicun (or Hehui Village). Before the late 1990's, three state-owned mercury mines, called #1, #2 and #3 Shafts, were operated by the Xinhuang Mercury Mining Company. Currently, local farmers and miners of Hehuicun and Chatian work ten small mines for cinnabar ore and crystals. Last year, beautiful, gemmy, twinned crystals of cinnabar were found in a small mine close to Hehuicun.


Access to Tongren and Fenghuang is relatively easy. There is a small airport (Daxing Airport) between Tongren and Fenghuang, and many flights from the cities of Guiyang, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen touch down at the airport. Two major railways traverse the eastern and southern parts of Tongren and Fenghuang.


The mining and utilization of cinnabar is more ancient in China than anywhere else, going back to a time to some 5,000 years ago, when the mineral was called "red sands" or "red ore" and was used as a pigment. About 3,000 years ago cinnabar began to be of interest to alchemists, Taoist priests, wizards and sorcerers, as well as physicians, and it acquired its present name, chensha, meaning "celestial sands" or "god's sand."


For many centuries thereafter, cinnabar mining in China prospered. Alchemists believed that with the help of this mineral they could miraculously transform ordinary metals into silver and gold; consequently, cinnabar was highly coveted by the ancient nobility. Taoist priests used cinnabar to make pills to promote longevity and perhaps even bring immortality (it was not as poisonous as one might think, inasmuch as cinnabar is relatively insoluble in the body). Today, the ruins of pill-making and alchemical facilities are found widely in northeastern Guizhou, western Hunan, and other areas.

For about 2500 years, cinnabar was widely used in sympathetic magic, at first by wizards and sorcerers to dispel devils, later by Chinese doctors to heal all kinds of diseases, to relieve pain and to bring on sleep, and as a preservative and antiseptic. Today, besides continuing to be used in medical and industrial applications, cinnabar is also regarded as a beautiful decorative material, as well as a good-luck-bringer or Feng-Shui object. In Asian countries, especially in Japan and Korea, cinnabar crystals, fragments or tablets are widely used in these ways, and large numbers of cinnabar crystal products are exported from China to other countries in Asia. In recent years, about 20% of Chinese cinnabar output has been consumed by the medical industry.

The modern period of mercury-mining in China began in the 1910's, and China remained a major mercury-producing country until the 1950's. But industrial demand for cinnabar and mercury gradually decreased from peak levels in the 1960's and early 1970's, while at the same time many Chinese deposits were mined almost to exhaustion. By the 1990's, there were 11 important staterun mercury mines and processing facilities with an overall production capacity of 1,200 tons per year (Liu et al., 1996). The biggest mines, those with a metallic mercury output of more than 100 tons per year in the early and middle 1990's, were the Wanshan, Tongren and Wuchuan mines in Guizhou Province. However, the demand for mercury reached a new low in the late 1990's, and all state-run Chinese mines have had to be shut down one by one during the past 10 years. Currently, only small mines, mainly operated by private companies or township governments, are still in production, but their ore output is small.





Wanshan and Yanwuping

Wanshan, the most important mining area, was originally a district of former Yuping County but became a part of Tongren County around 1960. After the state-run mercury mine was established in 1962, Wanshan, because of its strategic importance, became a special district directly administered by the central government. In 1970 Wanshan reverted to a county-level administrative district of Tongren Prefecture.

Cinnabar mining at Wanshan began about 4,000 years ago, during the Qin Dynasty. During the Tang and Song dynasties, cinnabar production at Wanshan was high, and trade with neigh-boring areas was very active. During this time the old term for cinnabar, a word meaning "red ore," was replaced by a word meaning "celestial sands"--consequently, the town which was the center of the cinnabar trade was renamed "Celestial City" (Chenzhou in Chinese; its current name is Yuanling); the river on which the cinnabar was transported came to be called "Celestial River" (Chenshui in Chinese); and the port town on the river became "Celestial Creek" (Chenxi in Chinese).

In 1275 the Chinese government set up an office at Wanshan to administer the cinnabar mines. Large-scale mining activities there were first documented in the literature 600 years ago. In 1899, a joint-venture British-French mining company took over the mines at Wanshan, and over the next ten years it produced 700 tons of mercury and made a profit estimated at 4 million silver dollars (the Chinese currency during the Qing Dynasty). The British and French withdrew in 1908, and private companies ran the five cinnabar mines separately until 1937, when a state-owned mining company took over all of the mines. After World War II, this company sold the mines off to private individuals again.

Since 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, the mines and mercury mills of Wanshan have been mainly controlled by the government. In 1952, the Guizhou Mercury Mine and Mill Company was established and authorized to run all mining facilities in the Tongren area. In 1953, control of the Yunchangping area was removed from this organization, and the Tongren Mercury Mine Company was set up to administer Yunchangping. In 1959, Guizhou Mercury Mine and Mill at Wanshan owned 6 shafts and three subsidiary firms and employed 6,690 people. In 1961 the mercury production of this enterprise hit its historical high of 1,262 tons. By 1990, Guizhou Mercury Mine and Mill at Wanshan had become one of the largest state-owned mining companies in China. But with the decrease in demand for mercury and the depletion of resources in the mid-1990's, the central government closed all state mines and allowed the company to go into bankruptcy in 2001. Although there are now more than 20 small private mines operating, their production is very limited.

In the course of more than 100 years of intensive development, the Wanshan and Yanwuping mines were worked on seven levels, to depths of more than 700 meters, and more than 1,000 km of underground workings were excavated; the longest continuous adit is 300 meters.


The mining history of Yunchangping is much like those of the Wanshan and Yanwuping areas. Before 1953, the Yunchangping area mines were operated by the Guizhou Mercury Mine and Mill Company, owned by the central government. After that date the mines were transferred to the Guizhou provincial government, which established a new entity, the Tongren Mercury Mine Company, to administer them. This was an unusual mining company in that all of the miners it employed were convicted criminals.






In 1997 the company was dissolved, and most of the mining pits and underground workings were abandoned or sold to individuals. These pits and tunnels, all of which are small, are scattered throughout the western and northern parts of the town of Yunchangping. The western mining area extends from Lula to Dadongla, and the northern area encompasses Palaxi, Huilongxi, Hongshuidong and Masaxi. East of Yunchangping is Hehuicun, in Hunan Province. Most of the mine pits of Hongshuidong, Masaxi and Pala have been active in recent years.




Widespread ruins of mining facilities indicate that Chatian, like other areas, including Tongren, has a very long history of cinnabar mining. Between 1946 and 1958, nearly all mines in western Hunan and eastern Guizhou were administered by the government. In 1958 the Xinhuang Mercury Mine Company of Hunan Province was established, and Chatian's mining areas were allocated to it. The company renovated three mines in Mazi'ao and Hehuicun, (called simply the #1, #2 and #3 mines). Xinhuang Mercury Mine Company eventually relinquished the rights to these three mines to local people. When I visited this area in October 2003, I found that only four small mines were still active. The annual production of cinnabar crystals in this area is less than 500 kilograms; the cinnabar is mainly put to medical uses or exported to Korea. In one of the mines (#3 mine), a pocket with gemmy red, lustrous, twinned cinnabar crystals associated with small quartz and dolomite crystals was recently found.


The Tongren-Fenghuang mercury deposits occur mainly in the middle Cambrian Aoxi and Huaqiao Formations, locally in the Lower Cambrian Qingxudong Formation. The Aoxi and Huaqiao Formations are dominated by thinly bedded intraclastic limestone, dolomite and dolomitic limestone, intercalated with laminated black shale and marl in the lower units. These rocks are interpreted to have been formed chiefly in a depositional setting on a carbonate platform (Yan Junping and Liu Ping, 1989). The Lower Cambrian Qingxudong Formation is characterized by interbedded dark limestone and dolomitic limestone: rock types typically deposited in relatively deep-water sedimentary facies in continental platform slope and platform front environments (Wang and Hu, 1989). The mercury-rich belts are stretched north-northeast, in conformity with the strike of major regional structures. These observations suggest that formation and distribution of mercury deposits are controlled by both sedimentation and tectonic movements. Although there are several interpretations of the origin of the cinnabar-bearing deposits, it is widely accepted that the cinnabar-forming materials are mainly derived from the Hg-rich carbonate and black shale deposited in marine environments, and that the Hg mineralization took place during diagenesis, as a byproduct of post-depositional geochemical and physical processes. Faults and folds generally striking north-northeast are the traces of tectonic events which provided passages and spaces into which the Hg-rich hydrothermal fluids could migrate. Orebodies occur mainly in openings created by structural tensions, such as along the axes of folds, along normal faults, and in pull-apart areas at the boundaries between formations. Cinnabar also is found within the breccias of compression faults, but only as massive material or very small crystals.


According to Wang and Hu (1989), post-depositional mercury mineralization in the Tongren-Fenghuang area can be divided into four phases: silicification, calcitization, baritization and pyritization. The formation of cinnabar crystals is mainly associated with silicification. Because multiple phases of hydrothermal and diagenetic activity took place, these four mineralization phases normally occurred sequentially or simultaneously, so that in either case recystallization and mineral replacement took place within most orebodies. The characteristic minerals of the mercury deposits include cinnabar, dolomite, quartz, calcite, pyrite, sphalerite, metacinnabar, barite, realgar, orpiment, stibnite and "asphalt." Cinnabar, dolomite, quartz and calcite crystals are predominant in most of the orebodies, the other minerals being rare, and some being visible only under the microscope. Analysis of gas and liquid inclusions in these crystals indicates that most of the minerals of these deposits formed between 60[degrees]C and 260[degrees]C. These low-temperature hydrothermal fluids may not be related to magmatic intrusions nearby, because no such intrusions have been discovered.

Among the ten mercury-rich zones shown on the geological map, it is chiefly the Wanshan, Yanwuping, Dadongla (Yunchangping) and Chatian areas which have produced large cinnabar crystals. In the Wanshan-Yanwuping area there are 12 mercury orebodies, all of which have been mined; the most important are at Shamudong, Zhangjiawan, Yanwuping, Lenfengdong and Kezhai. These orebodies range in size from 220 meters long (at Yanwuping) to 1250 meters long (at Shamudong), and from 40 to 140 meters wide and 1.1 to 22.7 meters thick.

The cinnabar crystals of the Wanshan-Yanwuping area are typically dark red or scarlet red penetration twins associated with dolomite and quartz crystals (Liu, 1995). The crystals are normally between 5 mm and 1.5 cm long, but crystals to 6 cm across have been reported from crystal vugs and small caverns. In 1980, a twinned crystal measuring 6.45 X 3.5 X 3.7 cm and weighing 237 g was collected by the Geological museum of China (Beijing) from a mine in Yanwuping. Cinnabar crystals from the Wanshan-Yanwuping mines are well known for their strong metallic-adamantine luster, dark or brick-red color, large sizes, pyramidal shape formed by penetration twinning, and attractive association with quartz and dolomite. The dark color of the cinnabar here is believed to result from relatively high trace contents of manganese and selenium. The majority of the Chinese cinnabar specimens which appeared on the international mineral market before 2000 are from the Wanshan-Yanwuping mines.


There are eight mercury orebodies in area of Yunchangping-Chatian. The most important deposits are at Dadongla, Hong-shuidong, Masaxi and Lula in Guizhou Province, and Mazi'ao and Hehuicun in Hunan Province; most cinnabar mines are concentrated in these areas. Although the formation mechanisms of mercury deposits in these mines are similar, their cinnabar crystals vary widely from mine to mine, in habit, color and mineral associations.

Dark penetration-twinned crystals up to 4 cm across on white dolomite are found chiefly in the mines of Dadongla and Lula, although other mines in the region may also produce specimens of this kind. Bright red, translucent, relatively small penetration-twinned cinnabar crystals predominate at the Mazi'an and Hehuicun mines (i.e. the #1, #2 and #3 mines) in southern Chatian. Highly lustrous cinnabar as bright red tabular and prismatic rhombohedrons (hexagonal and trigonal) is more common in the mines of Hongshuidong and Masaxi. In 2002 and 2003, an open pit in Hongshuidong produced many specimens with large cinnabar crystal clusters; underground work is currently proceeding there. During the last two years, several pockets have been discovered, mainly in the Hongshuidong and Masaxi mines in Yunchangping and in the #3 mine in Hehuicun, which have yielded highly lustrous, bright red, gemmy, tabular and prismatic cinnabar crystals to 3 cm with quartz and dolomite, and in some cases with yellow translucent calcite.




Although the cinnabar trade can be traced back thousands of years, the use of cinnabar crystals as decorative and ornamental objects might have begun about 300 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty. In these early times, thin pieces of cinnabar were packed for sale in small wooden boxes, each box weighing about 500 grams. Between 1955 and 1984, when the government of the People's Republic of China controlled all of the mercury mines, all cinnabar found in the mines was smelted as mercury ore. In 1985 the business of selling thin cinnabar blades in packages was revived, but the packages became smaller--from 100 to 200 grams weight--and the boxes were given glass covers. Most of these boxes were, and still are, exported to Korea and Japan.

The following is a summary of the contemporary cinnabar specimen trade, based on communications with Mr. Fu Zimin, an active dealer of Hehuicun, Chatian, and Mr. Zhang of Yunchangping.

During the modern era, collection specimens of cinnabar began being sold just after the discovery in 1980 of the largest known crystal (this specimen, already mentioned, weighs 237 g and is now on exhibit in the Geological Museum of China). Early in the 1980's the Geological Museum received some orders for cinnabar from dealers in the U.S.A., Hong Kong and Japan, and forwarded the orders to the Guizhou Mercury Mining Company in Wanshan. Until September 1983 the cinnabar business in China was controlled by state authorities, but in that month Ms. Zhou Xiaomei, a woman related to a miner, brought some specimens to Beijing and sold them directly to a Chinese-American dealer; in this she was assisted by Mr. Zhou Tingkuan, the person in charge of making purchases for the museum. From then on, more and more miners stole cinnabar crystals from the state mines and sold them to staff members of museums and geological institutes in Beijing and Changsha, the capital city of Hunan.

International demand for Chinese cinnabar crystals grew, and in response, in the early 1990's, some miners and dealers began gluing loose cinnabar crystals onto matrix and thus creating many "top specimens"--a practice which worried serious dealers and collectors. Mr. Tong, a young farmer in Wanshan, was so successful at this type of specimen manufacturing that he was able to buy a home in the center of Tongren city with his profits. The skill of some fabricators reached such a high level that it is wise for collectors to check all Chinese cinnabar specimens with microscopes or by chemical methods. Although the number of falsified specimens has decreased since the early 1980's, buyers still should be cautious, especially with unusual-looking specimens.

The first dealer, Ms. Zhou, earned a considerable amount of money and became a prosperous citizen of the Tongren area. In the 1990's, as the market for cinnabar fell off, she changed her business, moving into the clothing trade. Since the end of state ownership of the mines in the late 1990's, the trade in cinnabar has been conducted only among private merchants. Currently, about ten local cinnabar dealers are actively moving between the mines and the major domestic mineral markets, including those in Changsha, Guilin, Beijing and Guangzhou. In the summer of 2004, the first cinnabar dealer from Chatian, Mr. Yang, came to the St.-Marie-aux-Mines mineral show.


EDITING COMMITTEE OF CHINESE NATURAL RESOURCES (1996) Mineral Deposits. Chinese Natural Resources Series. Beijing: Environment Scientific Press of China. 447 pages.

LIU LANSHENG, XIE LIANGZHEN, and LI YONGSHENG (1996) Atlas of Ferrous and Non-ferrous Metal Resources of China. Beijing: Geological Publishing House. 188 pages.

LIU GUANGHUA (1995) Cinnabar and stibnite: excellent crystals and their localities in China. Lapis, 20 (10), 33-43.

WANG HUAYUN and HU KECHANG (1989) Genesis of stratabound mercury deposits in the border area between Hunan and Guizhou. In Yan Junping et al., Mercury Geology of Guizhou. Beijing: Geological Publishing House. 99-182.

YAN JUNPING and LIU PING (1989) Geological features and genesis of the mercury deposits of Guizhou Province. In Yan Junping et al., Mercury Geology of Guizhou. Beijing: Geological Publishing House. 1-56.

Guanghua Liu

Franzosische Allee 24

72072 Tubingen, Germany

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Title Annotation:mercury-mining region
Author:Liu, Guanghua
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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