Scholar’s Rocks: A Door to a Different Vision
by Vittorio Urbani

A nineteenth-century portrait of a Chinese imperial functionary in his simple but elegant domestic attire (image 1) shows a man of advanced age but still very much in control of himself and his surroundings. He is sitting composedly in an interior where, among other objects related to an intellectual profession (such as books and an inkstand) and to a wealthy status (a marble screen, vases with flowers), there appears a bizarre object: a contorted piece of rock placed on a vase with a small bamboo. At first glance, it may seem to be a mere decorative floral arrangement, but it is more than this. This object is a “scholar’s rock” and looks like the miniature reproduction of a mountain, or of a landscape. It invites the viewer to consider the relationship between big and small, near and far, to appreciate the rich texture of a natural landscape and to reflect on the many contradictions brought about by the presence of human beings in nature. Carved by nature in interesting shapes, scholar’s rocks had been collected as objects of contemplation by the intellectual and governmental elite of China since antiquity. Their original denomination is gongshi, a word written in Chinese using the two characters for “worship” and “stone”. Today more commonly named scholar’s rocks, these stones are often represented in traditional Chinese painting. Appreciated as objects for meditation, gongshi endowed their owners with a cultivated and refined status , and have been largely collected in China since ancient times, also featuring in the catalogues of imperial collections.
What is the meaning of these peculiar objects? What is their relationship with the field of “art” as we conceive it and  – in particular – with sculpture?
Considered in traditional Chinese culture to be the bones of the earth, and also the petrified roots of clouds, rocks (and therefore stones) are – interestingly – not only a representation of mountains, natural landscapes etc, but are also a real, authentic piece of nature. A stone is million years old, like the mountain where it came from and which it represents or evokes. It is not separated from nature: it is nature itself.

There are many literary reports of rare, interesting stones collected and displayed, mostly in gardens, as early as during the Tang dynasty (618-907 ). But it is from the Song dynasty (960-1279) that collecting stones became a widespread phenomenon among the literati and the government elite. Also, meditation stones of smaller size, more suitable for interiors, started to appear.

Song emperor Huizong (d. 1135) had a famous collection of 65 rare stones. During the later Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the collection of stones was accompanied by a growing activity of writing descriptions or poems on them, and painting portraits of famous or imaginary, ideal stones. Scholars, poets, and government officials collected stones, writing and exchanging letters and poems on them.
In the Suyuan Stone Catalogue, published in four books in 1613 and the largest antique illustrated catalogue of stones, its compiler Lin Youlin (1578 – 1647) states that, “a stone has both shape and spirit”. Shape can be beautiful, bizarre or interesting: but its aspect is only a means to reach to the “spirit” of the stone: a beautiful stone without spirit would be worthless, just a stone.

Fig. 1. 19th century painting of Chinese imperial official.
Cm. 124×77
of Renzo Freschi, Milan.
Photograph courtesy of Renzo Freschi.

Lin Youlin also writes in the introduction to his Catalogue: “I once said that specimens of calligraphy, famous paintings, inscriptions on ancient bronzes and <…> stone collecting are all capable of helping people to find detachment”. Contemplation of stones leads the viewer to uplift his spirit, to reach a superior understanding of nature and of the wholeness of the world, and to  attain a philosophical simplicity and intellectual freedom. In this sense the contemplator has a complex relationship with the stone, which, without understanding this context, would simply seem to be a crazy form of eccentricity. Famously, the poet and state official Mi Fu (1051-1107; nicknamed by his contemporaries Mi the Madman because of his extreme passion for stones) encountered an interestingly shaped rock during a trip and stopped in front of it in meditation, bowing to it and calling it “Stone Elder (Brother)”. In a more subtle and melancholic way, in his older years Bai Yuyi (772-846, a poet and governor under the Tang dynasty) wrote a poem, from which we quote a few moving lines: “… I turn to twin-peak stones, asking if they would accompany me, the old man. The stones, though unable to speak, promised to remain my faithful friends”.

The beauty of the rock does not come so much from a “beautiful” shape, but from its ability to evoke sentiments of majesty, of solitude, of detachment from the miseries of the everyday that one might feel when walking alone, among distant, deserted mountains. “Rocks, thanks to their silence, hardness, and immobility have the powerful personality of antique heroes; they are as independent and detached from life as wise hermits; for their unimaginable antiquity they bear ideas of eternity.” (2)

Being a prized object of collection, the gongshi places itself among rare, beautiful things, and among objects decorating the house of the elegant, learned and refined elite. Given that, could a gongshi be considered an artwork, and – for the purpose of this text – could it belong to the field of sculpture?
Gongshi, being part of  highly figurative Chinese art, bears the problem of abstraction, and more, of an unintentional abstraction (rocks are, in the end, the casual product of nature) which comes as a visual challenge and a stimulus to enter a different field of meaning and representation. When a stone can be seen as representing distant mountain peaks, we are considering it as the miniature of an original natural feature, with the interesting addition that it is made of the same substance; but when it comes to be seen as representing “surging clouds” on a summer afternoon, or a “running tiger”, we encounter a different way of reading: a highly symbolic and poetic one.
In the catalogue accompanying his show “China, The Art of Rocks”, Asian art dealer Renzo Freschi discusses their power of representation, arguing that “fascination and sentiment is what gives life to these rocks; they evoke the spirit of what a fantastic landscape should be, more than merely representing it”. In his text, Freschi poignantly calls this way of representation “impressionism” (5).
In addition to this, in contrast to a whole tradition of Western sculpture, very much concerned with surface, Chinese scholar’s rocks often offer the possibility to look inside – through holes, cracks, passages or the translucency of some stones; they represent a space within; they suggest that there may be a limitless world to contemplate inside a very finite object.
Often, the stone bears a resemblance not only to a mountain, but to clouds, rainfall, streams, or the effect of moonlight. Speaking in general, Gongshi are more similar to mountains as represented in Chinese painting than to mountains in nature: their power of representation is filtered through the traditional Chinese artistic and poetic sensibility and style. A quotation from a beautiful text by the Ming writer Chen Chiju (1588-1639), describing the ideal garden, is useful:

“ … Inside the gate there is a footpath and the footpath must be winding. At the turning of the footpath there is an outdoor screen and the screen must be small. Behind the screen there is a terrace and the terrace must be level. On the banks of the terrace there are flowers and the flowers must be fresh. Beyond the flowers is a wall and the wall must be low. By the side of the wall, there is a pine tree and the pine tree must be old. At the foot of the pine tree there are rocks and the rocks must be quaint. Over the rocks there is a pavilion and the pavilion must be simple. Behind the pavilion are bamboos and the bamboos must be thin and sparse. At the end of the bamboos there is a house and the house must be secluded…” (6)

The rocks must be quaint … picturesque. The echo of this line tells us all we need to know. It is the pictorial representation of mountains and landscape, the true visual reference of gongshi, more than nature itself. In fact, gongshi should not be considered as the mere miniature reproduction of mountains: in antique texts about stones, the qualities prized in a good specimen are often the texture (cracks, wrinkles) of its surface, or the surface looking dark and shiny as if wet: aspects that make the stone evocative of clouds capping the peaks, clusters of fog, streams running on its surface. It is a whole natural representation becoming alive before the eyes of the contemplator. As well as the physical aspect of the stones, such as colour, shape and “texture,” other aspects can be considered. For instance, some stones can give a beautiful sound. Describing a stone received as a gift, Cao Yin (1658-1712) writes: “ … when tapped, it rings like bronze”.

This sensibility also reflects on the names given to many of the scholar’s rocks, which are sometimes very descriptive like “Surging Cloud”, “Fragrant Hill” or “Twin Peaks”. But sometimes the poetic imagination prevails over the descriptive: names such as “Tiger Running through Clouds” or “Faithful Friend” are testimony to this sensibility always balanced between the natural and the poetic. Stones with a more abstract aspect were more likely to attract poetic names because, as stated by antique writers, a “spiritual resemblance” was what mattered the most. Interestingly, Su Shi (living during the Song dynasty, 960-1279) praised stones “with a fine texture but an ugly shape”. We believe this ugliness meant a resemblance that was not easy, a not too obvious association between the stone and an aspect of the natural world. And also a stone such as only a true lover could understand and appreciate. Ugliness, in this sense, is like a coffer hiding and preserving true virtue. Interestingly, the problem of beauty as being deceptive of true spiritual value is present in many cultures: in this sense, the reference to “ugliness” as being something positive in the appreciation of stones, hides a moral memento of universal value.
Coming from quarries, the bottom of rivers and lakes, or found on mountains, the stones for meditation were often “helped” in reaching a better aspect by crafty intervention, but ideally they should bear no traces of artificiality. In some cases, as with the rocks collected from the bottom of Lake Taihu, if an imperfection had to be corrected by chisel, the rock would be immersed in the lake again for a few more years, in order to have the sign of artificial intervention erased by the natural erosion of the currents. The problem of how much human intervention is permitted in shaping these objects is a critical one.

Fig. 2. Scholar’s rock, unknown period, height 27 cm,
in a German private collection, presently Private Collection, Naples.
of Mokhtar Azizi, Venice.

In several places in his texts, Lao Zi (also called Lao Tse, and nicknamed by his contemporaries the Old Child) insists on not sculpting the rocks: the idea is that the best art work, as well as the best work of nature, should not bear the sign of effort and artifice just as a meandering river or a mountain peak crowned by clouds look natural and effortless.
One different problem, curiously not greatly discussed, is that of its late appearance on the Western art market. Since relatively ancient times, Europe and subsequently America have been flooded by Chinese works of art and luxury crafts. Collectors have always treasured porcelain, carved ivory and jade, paintings, carpets and textiles . These products still hold a prominent place as treasured objects in the collections of European palaces and museums worldwide. But not the gongshi. They did not enter the Western art market until recently. Why is that so?

I have discussed this issue with scholar and collector Kemin Hu, who lives in Boston. Hu has published many reference books on gongshi. In her opinion the reason for “the later appearance on the Western art market is that gongshi are deeply rooted in Asian philosophy and created by nature, so cannot be manufactured by human hand”. This is an important point, since all other Chinese artistic products destined for exportation were, in fact, crafted by hand, sometimes – even in antiquity – with semi-industrial methods of production.
The same issue is also discussed in the leaflet “Objects for Contemplation”, presenting the exhibition held at The Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds, UK, in 2010. Curator Craig Clunas argues that the term scholar’s rocks is recent and “was probably not coined in English until the 1980s”. Clunas also suggests that the appearance of scholar’s rocks on the international art market comes after the loosening of the strict limitations applied to the exportation of “cultural relics” during the Maoist period. This is not entirely satisfactory in explaining why these objects, clearly treasured in China also in antiquity, were not considered suitable for commerce before the revolution – when almost everything else was. Perhaps the stones were considered a very private affair, like the portraits of ancestors, and therefore passed down through the generations of a family. In fact, in literary records, some antique stones are prized exactly because they had belonged to the same family for many a generation. These specimens had become truly revered “stone elders”.

Fig. 3 (all above and left).
Scholar’s rock, Qing dynasty (1644-1911),
from Lake Taihu,
height 48,1 cm.
Private Collection,
of Mokhtar Azizi, Venice.

Perhaps also within the very sophisticated artistic sensibility of Chinese culture, the case of the gongshi is peculiar: artificiality, which is one of the characteristics of “art”, has to bow to the ”natural”, and is eventually confined to the carved pedestal. Interestingly, there is evidence that in the most antique times the stones collected were not given a pedestal, as if sensibility on this point had needed time to become an issue.
The most interesting aspect of scholar’s rocks and their problematic standing in the field of “art” lies in this: the relation between culture and nature (always a problematic, unresolved one in Western art) seems to find in the gongshi a synthesis, a place of peaceful dialogue. Being a natural object itself, it is thanks to the base that the rock subscribes to the field of cultural products, all of them made by human hand. Ideally  – albeit not always  – untouched by a chisel, the gongshi is an unadulterated natural product, and therefore the only exception among the man-made illustrious cultural products enumerated by Lin Youlin in the aforementioned text.

One typical problem of collecting in western society is that of authenticity and dating. For a work of art to be considered authentic it must be described and possibly certified in terms of the producer (when possible), the area of origin, materials, size and date. The first issue – the producer – is out of the question: although often “helped” in order to obtain an interesting aspect, in theory the stone should not have undergone any treatment other than cleaning. In no case has the name of a gonshi “producer”  been recorded.

A comparison to another anonymous art product can be suggested here: the anonymous monk painters of Russian and Greek icons had to renounce to their artistic persona, and hide their hand under the perfection of a canonical and strictly regulated representation. Nevertheless, no one doubts icons to be works of art.

The area of origin and material are relatively easy to prove via mineral analysis. Even in antique Chinese texts, the quality of the material and the location of quarry, lake or mountain of origin are discussed and are an important part of the description and appreciation of a stone. But how can we date rocks? The irony of this problem is that the stone itself is millions of years old: an age astonishingly older than any other known art object. Only exceptionally can rocks portrayed in paintings be recognized, and so there is the possibility of a dating, in the sense they are the same age or even older than the painting itself. Only rarely, the style of a rock may suggest when it was made; or, as in the case of most sought-after specimens, the presence of an inscription or of an imperial seal may lead to an approximate dating. However, the seal could have been forged or added to an older or more recent rock. It is easier to date the wooden base, in terms of evaluating its style and with carbon dating techniques. Bases are really more connected to the period (we are tempted to suggest, to the fashion) than the rocks themselves. Some of them are carved in styles related to a period or geographical area of production. And as scholar Kemin Hu suggests: “bases also tell us about the financial status of the collector”.

Fig. 4 (right). Scholar’s rock, Qing dynasty
(1644-1911), datable from 19th century.
From Guangdong Province, 
height 30.5 cm.
Collection, Naples.
Photograph of Mokhtar Azizi, Venezia

Returning to the issue of authenticity, this “quality” regarding the gongshi is not – as it is in “proper” art  – the fact that the object comes from an individual human creator, but has a different, subtler meaning. Gongshi are uniquely, sublimely authentic in a sense no art work may ever be: while they represent nature, they are a real, albeit small, piece of it.
In the international context of art, the place of scholar’s rocks remains interestingly ambiguous: as three-dimensional objects, they seems to belong to the field of sculpture, but when the precept of being untouched by chisel comes to mind, their status as sculptures becomes paradoxical. Could they be seen as “objects trouvées”, appreciated as such first by avant-garde artists since early twentieth century? They could also be referred to the spirit of the Wunderkammern – collections of rare and bizarre natural and artificial objects – which were a fashionable status symbol in Renaissance European courts. Had they been traded during the Renaissance, surely they would have been placed in a Wunderkammer. However, this comparison is also unsatisfactory and reductive. In fact, it is the wooden or stone base –absent in the  oldest specimens – that places these rocks in the field of cultural and artistic artefacts. The base, so important also for the difficult aspect of dating, is for the stones what the frame is for a Western painting.

Fig. 5. Sandstone rock found by the author in 2017 in
the shallow sea at the bottom of Porto Conte Bay, Alghero,Sardinia.
Height 7-8 cm.
of Mokhtar Azizi, Venice.

The base defines the beginning and the end of the stone as an object of contemplation, and it also sets it in the best position and perspective for viewing. Some important rocks, in fact, can be observed from various “best” viewpoints (7), sometimes as many as three or even four. And thus there are stones which come with four different wooden stands. Returning to the discussion whether scholar’s rocks may be considered sculptures or not, the base works as the socle or plinth, the support of most classical Western sculpture. And the base itself is an unambiguous piece of sculpture. Sometimes it is the base which suggests the “mood” with which to contemplate a rock: sea waves kiss the cliffs of a rocky arch on the sea (fig. 3); or a pile of intertwined wooden poles  suggests the harvest of branches and brambles from the woods, while simultaneously supporting a rock evocative of mountain peaks and grottoes (fig. 4).
Gongshi  was a phenomenon born within a refined and learned elite in a rather static Chinese society . The rocks were loved and collected during the course of many centuries. But it is very singular the fact that they have found a new appreciation in the contemporary world.
Scholar’s rocks are a sort of visual puzzle; a challenge to the contemporary viewer: they call for a non-superficial viewing. They are doors leading to a different vision. All their content and meaning is in them, but the deciphering lies ambiguously in the viewer’s eye. It is only after repeated, long and somehow oblique viewing, that a Western “naive” observer can come to understand their spirit.
Now as then they are appreciated where contemplation is valued more than action; where memory is valued more than actual presence; and where the idea is valued above the object. Yet scholar’s rocks also have an immediate physicality. Their magic is in their ability to reach out to the contemplators, and to invite them to transcend the charms and illusions of materiality.

Dr Vittorio Urbani was born in Ferrara (Italy), 1954 and now lives in
Naples. He has a degree in Medicine (110 cum laude), with a specialisation
in Paediatrics. In 1993 he founded Nuova Icona associzione culturale
per le Arti, a non-profit art organisation dedicated to new art production
which he since directs. He has curated or co-curated more than 300 initiatives,
in the fields of exhibition, seminar, performance, as the curator/
director of Nuova Icona and by invitation of foreign galleries/institutions.
He has written, edited or co-edited about 200 catalogues and publications of Arts

Renzo Freschi
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