Collecting rocks for religious or aesthetic purposes can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) when Chinese connoisseurs began using large stones to decorate their gardens and courtyards. Scholar’s Rocks is the most common English name given to the individual smaller stones that have been appreciated by educated and artistic Chinese at least since the Song Dynasty (960–1270). They embody key aspects of the large garden rocks: slenderness and verticality; irregular, suggestive and sometimes grotesque shapes with sharp angles; strongly textured surfaces; deep furrows and perforations that weave in and out of the stone, providing depth and channels through which the imagination can flow. While some stones were modified to make inkwells and brush rests, most were simply enjoyed for their beauty and as a focus of meditation.
The indigenous Shinto traditions of Japan were closely associated with nature and the land. Thus when the Chinese Imperial Court sent gifts of penjing (rocks and trees displayed in basins) and Scholar’s Rocks to the Empress Regent Suiko (593–628 A.D.), they were readily admired by the cultured Japanese. During the latter part of the Kamakura period (1183–1333), a growing acceptance of Zen Buddhism by the samurai class led to a pronounced shift away from the energetic, convoluted Chinese styles, toward subdued, horizontal landscape stones—suiseki.
American viewing stone collecting began with first and second generation Japanese-Americans who continued their traditions of bonsai and suiseki. Gradually other Americans who were at first fascinated with the practice of bonsai were exposed to the suiseki that the Japanese-Americans incorporated into their formal bonsai displays. Contributing to public awareness of stone appreciation were the 1973 exhibition of Japanese stones from Nagoya, Japan at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and the establishment in 1976 of The National Viewing Stone Collection of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Within the past decade, a few art museum exhibitions, most notably, Worlds Within Worlds, organized by Robert D. Mowry, curator of Chinese Art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, have introduced a broader public to Chinese gongshi, (Scholar’s Rocks).
CHINESE WOODBLOCK PRINTS
The Chinese woodblock prints on display were likely from a 19th-century edition ofTreatise on Calligraphy and Painting of the Ten Bamboo Studio. Although this work, originally printed in the 17th century, was intended as a manual of painting, it and other editions are a testament to the precision and skill of Chinese woodcutters and painters. The prints of the Ten Bamboo Studio are noteworthy for the technique of printing using multiple blocks; this resulted in prints without outlines and with graded tones of colors. Among the designs featured in these meticulously rendered prints are blossoms, branches and birds and, most notably, gongshi.