The following historical review, spanning several thousand years, is intended to illustrate the profound influence unusual stones have had on cultures, and how, over the course of time they have been stylistically displayed according to the cultural aesthetics of the time. Though regional styles may differ widely, the essence of the art form rests on the perception of the stones’ ability to transcend its simple geology and become a vehicle to transport the viewer into another world. The essence of Nature’s energy and creativity is felt by many to coalesce in these stones.
Exceptional literature on this subject is readily available and recommended, and will quickly illustrate the depth and breadth of thought mankind has expended on contemplating and celebrating such unusual stones.
As early as 2100 BC, evidence suggests that stones such as the “Stone of Great Yu”, which is still standing in a province of China, were collected for aesthetic purposes rather than as mere monuments. One of the original sources of unusual stones in China is a unique geologic formation, karstic limestone, at the bottom of lake Taihu, or “Great Lake”. These large convoluted stones were collected primarily by Chinese royalty for their viewing gardens. The stones were arranged to represent a microcosm of natural landscapes indigenous to the area and were used to indulge the aesthetic sensibilities and contemplative endeavors of this aristocratic class. Since the Chinese kept excellent records, we have clear evidence of such elaborate gardens dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 8 AD). During this period of time, special ritual objects were often elevated on stands so as to visually separate and distinguish them as items of reverence and respect. Smaller stones were also moved indoors onto tables and pedestals for such special consideration. Arranged garden landscapes were further reduced into miniature scenes on platters that were filled with these stones and plants, giving rise to another Chinese art form, “Penjing”. This smaller size allowed the élites to extend this self-cultivation indoors by placing these arrangements in their studios. By the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), this artistic aesthetic broadened into such endeavors as poetry, scrolls, essays, and inscribed dedications to cherished stones. This fit well with the Nature based Daoist philosophy of the time by providing an imaginary vehicle for their transcendental travel to the land of their Immortals. The social relevance and of this art form continued to flourish, at one point being famously epitomized in the character of Mi Fu, (1057 – 1107 AD), a magistrate in Anhui province in 1105 AD. As legend has it, after taking his government position, he was observed approaching a large exceptionally fantastic stone, bowed reverently to it and affectionately addressed it as “Elder Brother Stone”, an honor not usually bestowed upon inanimate objects. Mi Fu was by no means alone in this idiosyncratic veneration. A contemporary, Su Shi was equally obsessed with stones, as were countless other literati and aristocracy, most notably Emperor Huizong, an avowed petromaniac. Stones of exceptional quality were often inscribed with phrases indicative of the profound impression and significance these collectors would ascribe to their stones; such as “Possessing the Way”, “Divine Transport” or “Detaining Clouds”. The preeminent Chinese text detailing guidance for placement and arrangement of stones was written by Du Wan, about the 12th century, in the “Yunlin Stone Catalogue”. In this text the quality of a stone was defined and judged, and still is today, using four criteria which were first described by Mi Fu; “Shou”, referring to a thin vertical orientation of a stone, “Zhou”, referring to stones with surface texture or wrinkles, furrows and ridges, “Tou”, referring to holes, cavities, dimples and depressions and finally “Lou”, a stone that has channels through it.
As stated previously, stones were first placed in gardens and then in basins with plant arrangements. It was about this same time, in the 14th century, that wooden stands were custom fit to a particular stone. One technique was to imbed the stone into growing roots, which over time would grow around and conform to the base of the stone; the wood would then be fashionably carved and finished. Unfortunately, this process was time consuming and created shortages due to high demand, resulting in carvers simply replicating the root motif. The practice of custom fitting wooden stands gained broad acceptance during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD), as did elaborate carvings with such motifs as the organic swirled patterns resembling the Lingzhi fungus, a Daoist association to immortality. The quality of woods used for these stands also became integral to the presentation, with such exotic imported hardwoods as Zitan, sacred Indian Red Sandalwood. Interestingly, prized elaborate stands would often be recycled, such as when the original stone was sold, for use on other stone with similar base dimensions, leading to the distinction of the original fitted stand being identified as “first wife” vs. the reused but not fitting quite as well stand as “second wife”. By the 18th century stands were an art form in and of themselves with beautifully carved waves, miniature landscapes, symbolic protuberances, and organic motifs being quite common.
Historically, Chinese stones were referred to as “Gongshi”, loosely translated as “fantastic stones”. The origin of this art form in China, however, was largely unappreciated until recently with the loosening of geopolitical barriers. Thankfully, it now impresses a global community of avid Viewing Stone enthusiasts.
The second major development of stone appreciation occurred in Japan, during the time of Empress Regent Suiko (593 – 628 AD) when she was presented with a miniature landscape, “Penjing”, from the Chinese Imperial Court. At that time stones and arrangements were in keeping with current Chinese styling, that is, unusual shapes and vertical presentations. A Japanese text on stone arrangements, “Sakuteiki”, written in the 11th century, went into very specific details about the proper placement of stones. However, between the 13th and 15th centuries, the Japanese aesthetic changed dramatically with the popularity of Zen Buddhism and the rising influence of the Samurai class. The emphasis on all art forms in Japan shifted toward a more austere, meditative, and simpler aesthetic style. For these unusual stones this meant presentations that were smaller, horizontally aligned, unpretentious and contemplative. The 15th century also saw the development of large dry landscape gardens as exemplified by the Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Ryoan-ji. Zen Buddhist monks, through contemplation, sought to understand the essence of the stone, which would be a pathway toward understanding the essence of the mountain and ultimately of the universe; therefore, by becoming one with the stone one would achieve enlightenment. The stone did not need to be literal, as in “looking like a mountain”, instead, suggestiveness was preferred, leading to the current styling of Japanese stones. By the Edo period (1603 – 1867 AD), the development of what we now consider traditional Japanese culture, as exemplified by the tea ceremony, “Bonsai”, and architectural art forms, were all being shared by a growing and wealthier middle class. Smaller stones became highly prized, creating lucrative regional markets. It was not unusual for Japanese Stone enthusiasts to gather for competitive poem writing sessions about a particular stone. Also, their penchant for categorization went even further than the Chinese, with well over 50 classifications for their stones. During the Meiji period, (1868 – 1912 AD), saw the first use of the term “Suiseki”, (water stone), which is currently the Japanese term for a very specific type of stone, but often loosely applied to any stone resembling that aesthetic. By the early 1900’s, a marked decline in this art form occurred due to the waning influence of the aristocratic and Samurai classes and attention instead appeared to be directed toward other art forms. In the 20th century, Japanese immigrants to the U.S. brought with them their customs and traditions, most notably the art of “Bonsai” which was often displayed with accompanying “Suiseki” accents. These were early, and to this day, important influences on the North American stone appreciation experience.
The third area of development was from the Korean Peninsula. Stones as gifts are also believed to have travelled from China to Korea around the 6th century and possibly earlier. Unlike the Japanese, they kept a Chinese style of vertical, irregularly shaped stones throughout most of their history up until the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century at which point they too modified their stone presentations toward a modest and simpler aesthetic.
With this history behind us, we now have, as reference, a rich tradition and guidance to explore our own local geology for new extraordinarily enchanting stones. However, defining the boundaries of this art form from a Western perspective will require a melding of aesthetic sensibilities. As long as the transcendence of unique stones from any region is the focus our presentations, then stylistic interpretations will merely continue and broaden this rich tradition of what we in the West now call Viewing Stones.
Several books have been sourced in the preparation of this abridged history.
Covello,V.T., & Yoshimura, Y. (1984). The Japanese art of stone appreciation: suiseki and its use with bonsai. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle Co..
Greaves,J.L. (2008). American viewing stones: beyond the Black Mountain: color, pattern and form. Santa Monica, Calif.: American Stone Resource Center.
Hu, K. (2011). The romance of scholars’ stones: adventures in appreciation: Warren, CT.: Floating World Editions.
Mowry, R.D., & Brown, C., (1997). World within Worlds: the Richard Rosenblum collection of Chinese scholars’ rocks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museum.