Chinese Scholar's Rocks

For well over a millennium, the Chinese literati class (often called “gentry” or “scholar-officials”) collected unusual rocks for their gardens and studios. The literati felt that the rocks represented the linkage between individual creativity and cosmic energy (qi). Several philosophical schools helped shape this art in the late imperial period (10th-19th centuries). Neo-Confucianism, with its humanistic emphasis on the creative individual, certainly opened the door to the scholar’s studio where so many great rocks were lodged alongside hanging scrolls and richly-finished furniture. Much of the spirit of the rocks comes from Daoism which holds that there is a “way” (dao or “cosmic order”) which, if we mortals would give up our shortsighted, grasping ways, can release enormous “power” and “virtue” (de). While scholars rocks have been created from many materials besides stone – petrified wood, tree roots, ceramics – my work represents the first sustained effort to use weathered wood from coastal areas as the medium and Chinese tradition as inspiration. The main reason that the that traditional Chinese passed up the seacoast was that their culture was land-based, focusing on plains and mountains, away from the forbidding sea with its terrible typhoons and marauding pirates. While philosophy and aesthetics offer important pillars, ultimately it is seeing the Chinese scholars rocks themselves – feeling their power, appreciating their beauty, sensing their uniqueness – that produces the inner spiritual experience. One must recognize that the real artist, whether the medium is natural rocks or natural wood, is Nature itself. Mi Fu (1052-1107), a great poet, painter, and stone connoisseur, made this point clear when he stood before a great rock, called it his “stone brother,” and bowed in respect.   Robert Oxnam