Scholar’s rocks first emerged during the Tang Dynasty (618-906) and were common in the studios of rulers and intellectuals throughout Chinese history. With the increasing influence of Daoism, the aristocrats and educated elites of the era began to have a greater appreciation of the natural world and landscape art in all forms. Large gardens emerged throughout China that served as both a representation of wealth and source of inspiration. Within these gardens, literati often built their studios in which they kept personal objects for artistic, meditative or decorative purposes. One such object, the scholar’s rock, was viewed as a microcosm of the universe.
These objects were appreciated for their ability to capture nature’s essence, especially qi 氣, the universal energy of things. The value of rocks was based on four essential qualities: thinness, openness, perforations and wrinkling. These characteristics were rooted in the rock’s resemblance to nature. While most of these rocks were made out of limestone, some were petrified wood, which was considered as a rarer stone. These rocks were found in caves around Yingde and Lingbi, but the most prized specimens hailed from Lake Tai. The twisting, unnatural stones are the result of natural water erosion or calcification. Although purported to be natural, many of the rocks were enhanced through minor polishing and sanding. The beauty and uniqueness of these stones is unparalleled, which has seen them persist for the past sixteen hundred years and remain popular to this day.
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We do not have any way of identifying the date when this object began being used as a scholar’s rock. The visual flow of this rock is up and down and the crevices that are common for such rocks have this same vertical quality. It is a Lingbi stone from Lingbi, Anhui province, which is notable for the black and grey rocks with many crevices and external features. It would have been used as decoration and also as an object of meditation and reflection, as the owner could gaze upon its many features and enjoy the solid black and grey features of this rock. The rock itself is quite heavy for its size and was almost certainly not moved very often once it was laid in one position or another.
This scholars’ rock, titled “Wood Shadow,” is made of petrified wood, which is considered to be a rock, and is a dark brown color. It also seems to have been coated with a layer of gloss to increase its shine and overall beauty. The rock has several holes in it and areas that are naturally smoother than others. While stones were appreciated for their resemblance to larger mountain ranges or larger rocks, petrified wood was seen as paying homage to the beauty of either trees or mountains.
With the rise of Daoism, Chinese people found a new interest in the environment, and scholar’s rocks were seen as a way of studying a microcosm of the universe. What sets a rock apart are its depiction of nature, physical characteristics of wuwei (action or movement in accordance with the un-interfered natural flow of life), and innate beauty.
Mother and Son
Mother and Son is a characteristic scholar’s stone, with two dark gray limestone rocks lying perched on a polished wood base carved in the likeness of clouds; two cliff-like precipices rise up to the base of each stone. Rocks were valued because they were believed to be the bones of the world, and thus the foundation of qi (energy, or universal life force). Originating in gardens during the Tang Dynasty, scholars’ rocks soon became objects of contemplation among the Chinese elite, who looked to them as vehicles of enjoyment and self-cultivation, meant to evoke natural forces and inspire poetry. Stones were evaluated on shou, (leanness’), a tight relationship between internal qi patterns and the exterior, zhou, (‘surface texture’) which requires the surface details to respond to larger structure, tou, the porosity of the stone, and lou, the types of horizontal or vertical small holes and perforations.