The Symbolism of Chinese Rocks – Essay by Richard Rosenblum

Richard Rosenblum The French scholar Rolf Stein stated that early Chinese believed that somewhere in the highest mountains there was a cave that was an exact representation of the world outside. In its center was a stalactite that gave off the milk of contentment. Any rock that suggests a mountain, cave or stalactite became symbolically important. This idea is reinforced by the Chinese notion that in addition to north and south, east and west, the most important orientation was ‘in’. it is because of this inward focus that Chinese culture looked for paradise inside of things, just as western culture looked upward and outside. in Chinese art, this orientation caused a search for ‘a world within a world’, for imagery in surprising and unpredictable places.

Let’s imagine that early Chinese lived in limestone caves. We know that karst limestone caves are common in China, and that among their characteristics are endlessly winding tunnels. They have underground streams and lakes, skylights, even fish. The geography of this world was so complex, that people would not be able to explore and map them in a dozen lifetimes. Paradoxically, when they emerged from these caves, they could readily see and walk around the small mountains that contained these ‘worlds within worlds’.

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Spirit Stones – Essay by Ian Wilson

Ian Wilson‘Scholar’s rock’ is the name commonly given to gongshi in the West. I much prefer the use of ‘spirit stone’ as it is more in keeping with the fundamental Chinese appreciation of their spiritual aspects. The term ‘spirit stone’ also evokes the deeper Daoist symbolism that was the basis for the original interest among Tang, Song, and Ming literati in these objects. Whereas ‘scholar’s rock’ reflects basic tenets of Western connoisseurship which is essentially analytical and investigative. Hence the vital role of provenance and the focus placed on appreciation of man-made objects.

Western study is objective and scientific and generally lacks or downplays the spiritual challenge of Chinese art. Thus it is difficult to appreciate objects in their natural form. New York’s Museum of Modern Art has no natural objects in their collection, and apart from a few spirit stones, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has only man-made objects. Consequently, there is a tendency to regard rocks as geological rather than spiritual objects and to appreciate them by rock type rather than for their aesthetic appeal.

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Rare Rocks are God’s Creations – Essay by C. C. Wang

C. C. WangI began collecting rocks in my twenties, more than sixty years ago. Ever since, my interest has never diminished. Western painters use human bodies as models while we landscape painters prefer rocks. Human beings, despite differences in appearance, height, proportion and weight, are on the whole not much different from one another. Rocks come from nature, and they are God’s masterpieces, widely different in shape, material, color, texture, and, more importantly, in artistic conception and charm. To depict a rock in a landscape is to paint its bones and frame. A good landscape painter has a profound understanding of the shape and surface texture of a rock.

Chinese painting, both in past and present, focuses on texture and brushwork. Truthful depiction of landscape was valued in ancient Chinese painting from the Five dynasties (907-960) until the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) when Ni Zan shifted the focus to use of the brush.

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Displaying Gongshi in a Group – Essay by Hu Zhaokang

Hu ZhaokangIt is a time honored practice to display rocks in outdoor gardens or indoors on pedestals for appreciation. The great calligrapher and painter Mi Fu loved rocks to distraction. Bowing to them nearly everywhere he encountered them, he became known as ‘Mi the Eccentric’. The famous poet Su Shi had a passion for rocks as well and composed many beautiful verses about them:

“I returned, carrying this rock with me,

So the Eastern Sea was cradled in my sleeves.”

“The clouds and smoke beyond three mountain peaks

Could all be viewed in a fistful of Ningxian rock.”

These examples attest to the long history of rock appreciation.

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Suzhou and Gongshi – from A Bryce Marden Retrospective

In 1995 Marden traveled to Japan, China, and Hong Kong. He was moved by the asceticism, refined geometries, and meticulously framed vistas of the Japanese rock gardens, and in Kyoto he must have thought of his father, builder of dry stone walls, when he saw the dry cascade in the Saiho-ji (Kokedera) paradise garden. But it was only when he got to China and the rock gardens at Suzhou that he fully grasped the spiritual resonance and compositional authority of this ancient art form. Marden said he “got it,” all at once, when Suzhou’s famous “Cloud-Capped Peak” came into view; it was instantly clear to him how a rock could be the subject of veneration.

In China, rocks may be venerated in nature (whether as mountains or as isolated boulders), in gardens (where they are carefully sited in composed landscapes, often having been transported at great expense and effort from remote locations), or on tabletops and in the display cases of connoisseurs. The latter objects, known as gongshi in China, are often called “scholar’s rocks” in the West, but the term “spirit rock” comes closer to the Asian sensibility regarding these preternatural works of art. (The term gongshi comes from the characters for “respect” and “stone.”) Marden bought his first spirit rock in 1995 and now has a number of fine examples, which he keeps in view in his studios.

The above except is from the book: Plane Image – A Brice Marden Retrospective

Plane Image - A Brice Marden RetrospectivePlane Image - A Brice Marden Retrospective

Scholar’s Desk – by Sister Wendy

As early as the 12th century, the Chinese characterized the furnishings of a home as “elegant,” in the sense not only for beauty but also of convenience and comfort. This was a moral issue, because elegance created an ambiance responsive to the qi — the life force or spirit that flows through everything. Thus on the scholar’s deck, he set a spirit rock. He would have searched for this in the lakes where they were especially to be found, seeking out a rock that encapsulated the landscape. Large rocks were placed outside the window in an inner court, but this one sat close to him. The rock had experience of the earth, and brought it into the study. It is particularly inspirational, because it has holes through which air and light can stream, bringing the qi of the earth to the spirit of the scholar.

The above except is from the book Sister Wendy’s American Collection

Sister Wendy\'s American Collection Sister Wendy\'s American Collection