A Brief History of
Chinese Scholar's Rocks
The Chinese interest in collecting rocks for religious or aesthetic purposes has been traced back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) when Chinese connoisseurs began using large stones to decorate their gardens and courtyards. There are also references to the special qualities of garden rocks and individual stones in poems dating as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907). Scholars' Rocks is the most common English name given to the small, individual stones that have been appreciated by educated and artistic Chinese at least since the Song dynasty (960-1270). They evolved from appreciation of the larger garden rocks, but their smaller size enabled the Chinese literati to carry them indoors where they could be admired and meditated over in their sparse studios.
Scholar's Rocks (or Gongshi)
began as stones that resembled or represented mythological and famous
mountains, or even whole mountain ranges in
appreciated simply for their dramatic form, their wondrous colors, or feelings they evoke from the viewer. Gongshi evolved from Chinese garden stones, which vary in height up
to 5 or 6 feet. Some Chinese literati and Taoist monks wanted to bring these mountains into their studios for meditation and contemplation while they wrote or painted. So smaller stones with the same qualities were found and initially received as gifts. They gained great favor among the literati and the Imperial court and have remained popular for over 1,000 years.
Gongshi is the Chinese term for stones that
meet the above criteria and evoke something from the viewer. The transliterated
word gong means "spirit" and shi
equals "stone", and
although these descriptive terms are used, the most popular English term for these stones is not 'Spirit Stones', but rather 'Scholar's Rocks'. It is undocumented as to why this is so.
The Chinese also have a classification system for these stones that can be found on the Internet at http://Shimagata.tripod.com. Essentially it is by location of the type stone or the common qualities of the stones.
Earliest garden displays of rocks occurred during the Han dynasty and were most likely representative of
the fanciful paradises known as Penglai, or the Eastern Isle of the Immortals. These
paradises were actually perceived to be three or more mountains isolated in the
One of the first such garden designs built to represent these paradises was built by Han emperor Wudi (Liu Che, 156-87 B.C.; or 140-87 B.C.) which "consisted of a large pond with four island-mountains - Penglai, Fangzhand, Yingzhou, and Huliang - rising at its center"2. Later emperors had similar gardens built. Over time Daoists literati represented these paradise mountains as mountains floating among the clouds, or as elaborate grottos where the immortals lived.
Current garden rocks are displayed
either singly or grouped to represent a mountain range, a particular set of
mountains, or sometimes a specific mountain. Single stones of high quality or
representing a particular mountain are usually given a place of prominence in
the garden. Most garden rocks are shades of white or gray, and can be as tall
as twenty feet high from their base. Such rocks are normally extremely
weathered and worn. Many collectors enjoyed the special qualities of rocks from
a lake in
Scholars' Rocks are smaller than garden rocks and are
selected for more refined qualities. The
size of Scholars' Rocks varies from miniature stones of about one inch to rocks
or five feet in height. However, the normal size is one small enough to rest on a table or desk. Scholars took these portable mountains into their studios and used them for meditation and contemplation. Some were converted into utilitarian objects such as brush rests, censors or seals - but the majority were viewed as artistic creations in their own right. The most highly regarded rocks were of dense limestone that "emitted a bell-like ring when struck"3
Scholars' Rocks are normally displayed on a desk or table, or
other suitable place for displaying a work of art. They are usually displayed in
carved wood stands, and the stands themselves are often works of art in their
own right, depicting mythical, stylistic or symbolic images in great detail.
The most highly sought stones in
Although Scholar's Rocks have been in the studios of Chinese scholar's for 1,000 years, they have only sparked significant interest throughout the rest of the world during the past 20 years or so. This renewal of interest in the west, is primarily due to the display and interest shown in the Ian and Susan Wilson collection, the Richard Rosenblum collection - and most recently by the informative books written by Kemin Hu that showcase such stones, express their most recent history and also display stones from the collections of well known Chinese collectors such as C. C. Wang and Hu Zhaokang
Although black stones are the most sought after, Scholars' Rocks vary in color from white to yellow to red to black. During various periods of Chinese history, different types and colors of rocks grew in popularity. During the Ming and Qing periods (1368-1911) more colorful stones such as marble, malachite, turquoise, yellow quartz, soapstone and serpentine became favorable with collectors.
To the Chinese scholars, these rocks represented a focus for meditation of religious or philosophic principles and served for contemplation prior to writing poems or painting. Although most rocks resembled mountains (both famous and imaginary), mountain ranges, overhangs and similar natural wonders of the world around them, there were also many that reminded the connoisseurs of famous people, animals, and mythical creatures. Above all, these learned Chinese admired the rocks for "surfaces that suggest great age, forceful profiles that evoke the grandeur of nature, overlapping layers or planes that impart depth, and hollows or perforations that create rhythmic, harmonious patterns."4
One last point concerning Scholars' Rocks. It would be wonderful if all of the holes, perforations, age, and overall balance of Scholars' Rocks such as Taihushi were wholly made by the forces of nature. However, the truth is that many, if not most, of these rocks were enhanced by men. To what extent varies greatly from rock to rock. Many have been drilled, ground down and then polished to enhance their beauty. Often the treated stones are then submerged in water so the forces of nature can restore the natural patterns of wear in them. In general, this knowledge should not detract from our appreciation of each of these stones as a work of art in its own right.
Display. Chinese style stones are displayed
in a vertical position (upright) because they are usually representing mythical
or famous mountains in
Carving a stand for your 'Taihu' or 'Lingbi' style stone is much more difficult than carving a stand for a 'suiseki'- style stone. It must first be deep enough to hold the stone in a secure, upright position. Then it will normally have five legs added to the stand with dowels before it is finally carved with a representational motif of mushrooms, protrusions, indentations or some other design. Then it is stained a dark color.
Finally, I would like to quote lan Wilson. "The Daoist principle of pu is particularly relevant to the understanding of gongshi. Pu has been translated as the 'uncarved block' implying things in their natural state. To quote from a no less impeccable source than the Tao of Pooh: "The essence of the principle of the 'uncarved rock' is that things in their own original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed.""
Top picture - Red Taihu Rock. Jiangnan-style stand, with five cabriole legs
1 Brown, Claudia, Worlds Within Worlds, The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' Rocks, p. 60
2 Brown, Claudia, Worlds Within Worlds, The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' Rocks, p. 60
3 Mowry, Robert D, Worlds Within Worlds, The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' Rocks, p. 20
4 Mowry, Robert D, Worlds Within Worlds, The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' Rocks, p. 21
Kemin Hu, The Spirit ofGongshi: Chinese Scholar's Rocks, L. H. Inc., Newton Massachucetts, ISBN number 1-878529-51-X.
Little, Stephen, Spirit Stones of China: The lan and Susan Wilson Collection of Chinese Stones,
Paintings, and Related Scholars' Objects, Exhibit Catalog, The Art
Chicago in assn. with University of California Press, 1999.
Moss, Sydney T.,
When Men and Mountains Meet: Chinese and Japanese Spirit Rocks,
Mowry, Robert D.,
Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholar's Rocks,
Exhibit Catalog, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge,