Introduction to Scholars’ Rocks

Learn about Scholars’ Rocks: Introduction | Types | Books | Essays | Museums


“Then I turned towards my two rocks asking
If they would stay with me when I am old.
They could not speak yet seemed to say
That they would remain my faithful friends.”

These lines confess the archetypal expression of the personal and spiritual affinity felt by the great Tang poet Bai Juyi (772-846) for rocks. Kemin Hu, author of The Spirit of Gongshi shares a similar passion for scholars’ rocks and is at the forefront of the study of scholars’rocks. Kemin was stirred to an appreciation of scholars’ stones by her father, a noted connoisseur of Chinese antiquities. She became an authority on scholars’ stones through her long career as a dealer and collector, as well as through her friendships with such great collectors as Richard Rosenblum and C.C. Wang.

In China, Chinese Scholars’ Rocks or Spirit Stones are called Gongshi. Naturally formed or “sculptured” stones in surprising shapes and textures, Gongshi have been appreciated by Chinese connoisseurs for more than a thousand years. As early as the Tang dynasty (618-907AD), scholar-officials and persons of refined tastes began appreciating their unusual forms by placing smaller sized rare rocks in their studios for indoor viewing. It was said that a garden could not be beautiful without such rare rocks, and that a studio lacked elegance without gongshi. They were also presented as tribute objects to emperors and were transported to Japan and Korea.

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 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 rocks are admired for surfaces that suggest great age, forceful profiles that evoke visions of the majestic nature, overlapping layers or planes that impart depth, and perforations that create rhythmic, harmonious patterns.

Display rocks should be hard in material and rich in texture and ideally their hue and luster should be natural, simple and pure. The rocks may also seem animated and inspiring; others manifest artistic conception – an insight or revelation that provokes thought and captivates the viewer. It is said that “a rock, though small, will show its intelligence when it has spirit.” Display rocks may appear to be in an inactive state or one of inertia. Rocks with inertia convey serenity and calmness as well as a sense of strength, while the more animated seem to fly, dance, shout or jump. Amidst life’s commotion and distractions, it is for the rock lover to catch the moment.

Gongshi are truly nature’s most ancient artifacts. In the essay Taihu Rocks, Bai Juyi wrote: “The famous mountains, the hundred caves and valleys are all presented by these rocks. Sit there and you can see at a glance a hundred hills spread over a thousand li in a rock the size of a fist.”

Introduction by Asia Society