Over a millennium ago, Chinese scholars began collecting intriguingly contoured and textured rocks to display indoors for contemplation, and they were regarded with the gravitas typically reserved for art. This distinctive category of Chinese art now has many modern followers worldwide and is popularly referred to as “scholars’ rocks,” named after the original and largest group of collectors in premodern China. But these stones were also known in ancient China by other, more evocative names: they were called “spirit stones” (gongshi), which captures the awe, reverence, and veneration bestowed upon favored rocks, and they were also referred to as “fantastic and strange stones” (guaishi), alluding to their visual appeal as abstract forms that would trigger the viewer’s imagination, including evoking visions of journeying through mountains.
Scholars’ rocks, which are often varieties of limestone, are largely formed by nature through the interaction of earth, water, and wind, but sometimes human collaboration in the form of subtle, almost indistinguishable sculptural interventions enhances a rock. A body of literature to aid connoisseurs in rock collecting was developed beginning in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and encourages the acquisition of rocks ranging from tiny sizes to several feet high. While taste in rocks has changed over time, rocks with dynamic forms that seem to thrust and twist as if in perpetual motion and rocks with energetic interplays of positive and negative spaces have been favored. Textured surfaces with rough pitting, smooth deep furrows, or craggy wrinkles have also been (and continue to be) highly admired.
Scholars’ rocks fit into a rich web of Chinese philosophic and literary musings extending back to the time of Confucius that focuses on mountains and stones. Gazing upon a rock can evoke thoughts of a noble spirit, as Confucius allegedly said that those who are benevolent delight in mountains, while Daoists lodged reverence for nature and beliefs in attaining immortality in the power of mountains. A single, well-chosen rock embodies the mountain’s power on a microcosmic scale. As the scholar-rock collector Du Wan wrote around 1127, the “purest essence of the energy of the heaven-earth world coalesces into rock. It emerges, bearing the soil. Its formations are wonderful and fantastic. Some rocks are with cavernous cliffs, revealing their interior, some with peaks and summits in sharp-edged layers.” He went on, “Within the size of a fist, the beauty of a thousand cliffs can be assembled.”
The gift of six, fist-sized scholars’ rocks—including Y-shaped Rock with Perforation—brings the reality of Du Wan’s statement to the museum. Each rock is mounted in a traditional Chinese manner on a wooden stand that positions it to best advantage, raising it above the tabletop in order to separate it from the mundane and command attention. The gift is from the family of Richard Rosenblum (1941–2000), a distinguished sculptor and collector of Chinese scholars’ rocks, who was more responsible than anyone else in the United States for inculcating Western appreciation for this distinctive category of Chinese art. Rosenblum was partial to these six rocks because, despite their unusually small size, they embody the transformative power of the universe.
Y-shaped Rock with Perforation from a Group of Six, Miniature Scholars’ Rocks on Wooden Stands
China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
Lingbi limestone on wooden stand, H x W x D (assembled): 29.5 × 17.5 × 13 cm (11 5/8 × 6 7/8 × 5 1/8 in)
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of The Rosenblum Family Collection, S2020.4.2