Scholar’s Rocks


Collecting and appreciating rocks has a long history in China. During the Song dynasty (960-1249), the literati and elite classes collected and traded rocks with the same passion as they did for fine art. Treatises were written on the desirable traits of rocks, detailing the characteristics of preferred features, such as rare stones (gongshi) and those with an fantastical appearance (guaishi). As with early paintings and calligraphy in China, scholars and intellectuals pursued rocks that were visually expressive and more meaningful than pretty or decorative. Here, we explore a collection of scholar’s rocks c

In 2018, scholar, collector, and filmmaker Wan-go Weng (1918-2020) donated the Weng Family Collection of Chinese Paintings and Calligraphies to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This gift, of more than 390 works, has resulted in an exhibition that provides an opportunity to explore the countless ways rocks have inspired Chinese culture throughout the ages – and continue to inspire today.

Although the appreciation of scholar’s rocks was first recorded in the Tang dynasty (618-906), the appreciation of these objects only became firmly established during the 11th century. Originally, fantastically shaped garden stones evoked the grandeur of mountains and other images from nature with scholars developing aesthetic principles to appreciate the beauty of the stones. Appreciated for form, colour, and texture, unusual rocks represented a microcosm of the universe upon which Chinese scholars could meditate in their own studios and gardens. Then smaller stones, at a later date, began to appear indoors and became highly desirable items for the literati class to collect and used as objects to spark conversation or for inspiration in creating poetry and paintings.

By the early Song dynasty (960-1279), small ornamental rocks were also collected as accoutrements of the scholar’s study and the portrayal of rocks, often joined by an old tree or bamboo, became a favourite and enduring pictorial genre for literati painters for centuries. Rocks were important objects that could represent an owner’s taste, as in the case of other carefully chosen works such as paintings and calligraphy. They were especially prized by the scholar and the court for their natural shape, their abstract qualities, texture, resonance, and their ability to evoke feelings from the viewer.

Especially admired are stones that have been sculpted naturally by processes of erosion or that appear to have been shaped by nature even if they have been artfully enhanced by man. Pitted, hollowed out, and perforated, such rocks, which are often displayed on end, vertically, are seen as embodiments of the dynamic transformational processes of nature. By the Tang dynasty (618-907), four principal aesthetic criteria had emerged: leanness (shou), openness and form (tou), perforations (lou) and wrinkling or texture/awkwardness (zhou) had been identified for judging the studio rocks, as well as the larger examples seen in gardens.

When rocks were visibly eroded and sculpted by nature’s forces, they were thought to possess a concentration of nature itself, with the agreed criteria establishing the identity of this encapsulated power. Using the mentioned prescribed criteria, leanness describes the state in which this interior energy retains this power and manifests itself in the physical appearance of the rock, giving it energy. Surface texture patterns also provide visual form to this interior energy and aid the viewer’s appreciation of the form, whilst the perforations in the rock draw the viewer’s eye to its inner energy and ultimate form.

These aesthetic features could be found in three main types of rocks: Taihu, Lingbi, and Ying varieties. Taihu rocks were farmed in Lake Tai in Jiangsu province. They usually have perforated surfaces that were formed by drilling the limestone rock and then immersing it in the lake, where it was exposed to the erosive actions of water, waves, and sand, sometimes for hundreds of years. When the rocks were harvested, the perforations often appeared to be natural. Taihu rocks have been likened to miniature cosmic mountains with heavenly grottoes and fantastic peaks.

Many of the most prized examples for collectors came from Lingbi, in the northern Anhui provenance of China. The best Lingbi stones are deep black in colour, often only lightly textured with their surfaces appearing glossy to the viewer. The most prized, such as the limestone Lingbi type, are so densely structured that they resonate and emit a clear ring when struck. Lingbi have been favoured and collected since the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127) by the literati. Retrieved from subterranean quarries, the dark stones with their convoluted forms and textured surfaces, are emblematic of the great rock-faced mountain ranges that have inspired Chinese landscape painters and poets for centuries. While large Lingbi stones were occasionally placed in gardens, they were mostly placed indoors as desktop rocks in the scholar’s studio with the lighter coloured tai-hu rocks, with their strange perforations, were more frequently favoured for use as garden stones.

A more common type of scholar’s rock is from Yingde in Guangdong province – these rocks are traditionally prized for their intricately textured surfaces which are often characterised as ‘dimpled’. In Yingde, rocks were mainly discovered in cave complexes with prize example being praised from their geographic origin, colour, and texture.

Besides formal physical qualities needed, rocks were also admired for their resemblance to mountains or caves, particularly the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens or dongtian) believed to be inhabited by immortal beings. Some rocks were appreciated for their resemblance to animals, birds, human figures, as well as mythical creatures.

Images of nature and natural landscapes have remained a potent source of inspiration for artists from the late Tang dynasty to the present day. This idea of escaping to nature and to one’s natural state was a central theme of the literati scholar and other objects placed on the studio table visually emphasise these ideas with the use of table screens, peaked brush rests. Scholar’s rocks also reflected these ideals.

Paintings of fantastic rocks appeared as early as the 8th century, when the literati began to show interest in these objects and brought them into their world. Often a single elegant specimen, combined with an ornamental tree or flower, was used to suggest a garden setting. Rock-and-tree paintings soon developed into a separate pictorial genre in which the auspicious associations of fantastic rocks were linked to the symbolic meanings of certain plants – such as a pine tree (longevity), bamboo (moral purity), peonies and hollyhocks (wealth and high rank) – to create images that were appropriate gifts for birthdays, the New Year, and other special occasions.

By the 17th century, the aesthetic ideals of painting and scholars’ rocks were almost indistinguishable. Assemblages of fantastic rocks in a garden, often arrayed in front of a white wall, inspired by compositional formulas developed in painted landscapes. The passion for these specimens for contemplation and display brought about the numerous ‘portraits’ of actual, as well as imagined specimens, of scholar’s rocks. With the rise of monumental landscape painting in the 9th to 11th centuries, artists began creating various prescribed images of mountains that recalled twisting plumes of smoke, soaring peaks, or misty landscapes. These imaginary landscape paintings were copied by later landscape painters and helped influence scholars’ taste in rocks.

This deep appreciation for the aesthetics of rocks led to new traditions: paintings of rocks and even how-to woodblock-printed manuals for painting them. This exhibition explores both rocks and paintings of rocks in Chinese culture and how a humble, common object can be an inspiring muse.

Weng Family Collection of Chinese Painting: Art Rocks, until 3 May, 2023, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,