Suiseki History

The first Penjing and Gongshi were presented to Japan's Empress Regent Suiko by the Chinese imperial court between 592-628. These first rocks were extremely interesting to the Japanese court and aristocracy. They were fantastically shaped, with holes, hollows and highly eroded surfaces. They were vertical stones, representative of the imposing mountains and cliffs of China. These stones remained popular in Japan for hundreds of years.

During the latter part of the Kamakura period (1183-1333) the Samurai warrior class rose to power in Japan. The active trade between China and Japan had brought the teachings of Zen Buddhism, that had won wide acceptance with the samurai. Zen Buddhism emphasized austerity, meditation and intuitive insight achieved through this practised discipline. In keeping with this philosophy, stones with more subtle lines became highly sought.

The Zen monks emphasized this preference further during the Muramachi period (1338-1573) by seeking stones that were stripped to their essential elements without distracting details. Over time this lead to preferences for stones that were suggestive rather than precise representations of natural landscape features such as mountains. These stones became a means to spiritual refinement, inner awareness, and enlightenment. The tastes of the Zen monks strongly influenced the Japanese ruling class.

The Edo period (1603-1867) saw a rise of wealthy merchants who also became interested in suiseki and began competing with the aristocracy for these stones. This was also a period of intense isolation for Japan, when they closed their borders to outsiders. However this same "isolation" allowed Japanese arts to flourish without outside influence.

In some ways the art stagnated during the latter part of the nineteenth century (Meiji period 1868-1912) due to a decrease in wealth of the nobility and the samurai. However, in other ways it grew. It was during this period that classifications of suiseki were first developed.

During the latter half of the twentieth century interest in suiseki renewed, grew and expanded into the international community where it has continued to receive increasing interest. Today there are suiseki clubs and associations throughout the world.

It is interesting to note also that "public exhibitions of bonsai (and presumably suiseki) were held in western countries long before they appeared in Japan. Bonsai were displayed in France, England, and the United States at the numerous world's fairs and international expositions staged between 1860 and 1920. In Japan the first public display was held in Hibiya Park in Tokyo in October 1927 and then annually through 1933. This was replaced by the first Kokufu-ten Bonsai Exhibition held at the Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park in Tokyo. Bonsai exhibits were common in Japan long prior to the late 1920s; however, these private showings typically held in traditional Japanese restaurants. Bonsai, suiseki and accompanying items were displayed in tokonoma lining the walls of large banquet rooms. There, invited guests could view the plants (and stones) on display. A catalog of one of these exhibits was compiled by members of the Bijutsu Bonsai Taikai and published in Meiji 25 (1892)."

More information on Japan exhibitions can also be found at the Nippon Suiseki Association website.

Elias, Thomas S., The Best Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibits in Japan: Where and When to Go and What to See

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