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Rock in the Form
of Three Peaks
with Calligraphy
Ming dynasty,
14th-15th century

Seal in the Form
of a Mountain Peak

Qing dynasty,
18th century

Peaks and Grottoes
Qing dynasty,
18th century

Horizontal Rock 
with Grottoes 
Qing dynasty,
18th century


Rock in the Form
of Multiple Peaks,
perhaps Ming dynasty 


Stone Censer in the
Form of Three
Mountain Peaks,
Qing dynasty, late 17th,
early 18th century


 Tall Rock in
the Form of 
an Old Man,
Ming dynasty 

chinese scholars' 

an appetite for 
significant form 

by Mia Fineman
When Leonardo da Vinci needed to get his 

creative juices flowing, he sat and stared 

at rocks. "If you look upon an old wall 

covered with dirt or the odd appearance of 

some streaked stones," he once wrote, "you 

may discover several things like landscapes, 

battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, 

humorous faces, draperies, etc." Da Vinci 

heartily recommended this "new method" of 

invention as a practical technique for 

"opening the mind and putting it upon the 

scent of new thoughts." The abstract, 

organic forms embedded in crumbling walls 

and hunks of stone, he believed, could be 

put to work as terrestrial batteries for 

jump-starting the imagination. 

"Worlds within Worlds: The Richard 

Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' 

Rocks" at the Asia Society offered a 

fascinating look at the ancient Chinese 

counterpart to da Vinci's "new method" of 

squeezing creative blood out of stones. This 

remarkable show featured over 70 examples of 

the intricately textured and unusually 

shaped rocks collected by Chinese scholars 

and displayed in their private studies. The 

most prized rocks, according to the show's 

curator, Robert D. Mowry, curator of Chinese 

art at Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum, 

were "descriptive enough to suggest natural 

forms--such as weathered trees, lofty peaks, 

or aged scholars--but abstract enough to 

leave actual interpretation to the viewer's 


These rocks are "found objects" par 

excellence--raw products of nature 

transformed into esthetic delicacies by 

culture's insatiable appetite for 

significant form. Prized rocks were 

traditionally placed in ornamental gardens 

designed as walled-in microcosms of the 

larger world; by the Song dynasty (960-

1279), scholars, calligraphers and painters 

began bringing their favorite rocks indoors. 

While some were pressed into service as 

brush rests, ink stones or seals, most were 

treasured primarily as evocative vehicles 

for esthetic contemplation--like Rorschach 

blots minus the pathologizing psychobabble. 

Occasionally, scholars would burn incense in 

hidden cavities at the base of the rock, 

cleverly combining utilitarian function with 

figurative illusion: as the smoke rose 

through the hollows and perforations, it 

would magically conjure the illusion of a 

mist-enshrouded landscape. 

Apart from their descriptive resemblance to 

craggy mountain landscapes or hunched 

figures, scholars' rocks were evaluated 

according to an elaborate set of esthetic 

principles detailed in the erudite writings 

of the Chinese literati. Rock connoisseurs 

were wild about heavily textured or wrinkled 

surfaces, multiple hollows and perforations, 

overlapping layers or planes imparting 

depth, and a top-heavy, natural asymmetry 

known as "awkwardness." However, the 

petrophile's esthetic pleasure was not 

limited to the visual: the moistness of 

glossy surfaces and resonance--the ringing 

sound a rock makes when struck by metal--

were also greatly admired. And in fact, the 

highly tactile, sometimes skinlike surfaces 

of the rocks still elicit covert caresses. 

During my visit, the motion-sensitive alarms 

sounded continually in spite of the 

prominent "Do Not Touch" signs. Judging from 

the guards' unruffled responses, this seemed 

to be a common occurrence. Fortunately for 

the polysensualists among us, the curators 

compensated for this frustrating 

interdiction by allowing visitors to tap one 

particularly resonant hunk of limestone with 

a small metal rod, producing a surprisingly 

loud, bell-like tone. 

By organizing the stones according to their 

geological origins, the exhibition provides 

a quick tutorial in the esoteric art of 

Chinese rock connoisseurship. Along the way, 

you learn to distinguish the glossy black 

and grayish green limestone mined from the 

Lingbi caves from the deeply perforated 

stones harvested from Lake Tai, and to 

relish the contrast between the rough, 

cratered surfaces of rocks from underwater 

Yang caves and the waxy, yellow soapstone 

collected in northern riverbeds. While most 

of the rocks were organically sculpted by 

centuries of natural erosion, some were 

surreptitiously carved to enhance their 

representational suggestiveness and increase 

their value as collector's items. Inspired 

by the feisty spirit of entrepreneurship, 

local families around Lake Tai would often 

secretly chisel blocks of limestone and then 

bury their cunning forgeries in the lake for 

several decades of natural finishing. 

Hovering between figuration and 

abstraction, these natural artifacts display 

an eerie similarity to modernist sculpture 

in the Western tradition. Some recall the 

bulbous organic forms of Henry Moore and 

Dubuffet; others echo the spindly elongation 

of certain pieces by Brancusi or Giacometti. 

With its aching contrast between dynamic 

movement and stony solidity, the  Diagonally-

Oriented Rock Suggesting a Twisting Figure 

mined during the 18th-century Qing dynasty 

looks like an distant ancestor of Boccioni's 

machine-age monument, Unique Forms of 

Continuity in Space.

Perhaps it was this set of family 

resemblances that first caught the eye of 

Richard Rosenblum, an American sculptor who 

began collecting scholars' rocks in the 

1970s. In deference to the show's 

celebration of "art without artists," 

Rosenblum refrains from mounting his own 

work alongside the rocks from his extensive 

collection. In the elegantly produced mini-

catalogue, however, he tries to give these 

ancient artifacts a contemporary spin by 

drawing an analogy between the eroded 

interior spaces of the scholars' rocks and 

the dubious promise of infinitude in our own 

fin-de-millennium cyberspace. 

In this context, it seems appropriate that 

Rosenblum's keen eye as a collector would 

overshadow his efforts to tackle this 

grandiose theme in his own computer-

generated "cybermontages." One of the most 

radical aspects of this show lies in its 

emphasis on the judicious art of selection 

and framing, its challenge to the 

conventional esthetic hierarchy which ranks 

the production of art objects over their 

reception. Here the connoisseur's 

sensibility--his ability to ferret 

significant form out of the inchoate sprawl 

of nature--reigns supreme.

After they are unearthed, scholars' rocks 

are typically mounted on exquisitely carved 

wood stands, custom-made to complement the 

rocks' distinctive shapes and enhance their 

formal qualities. Mowry's scholarly wall-

labels identify the stands stylistically, 

calling attention to quirky regional 

characteristics such as the delicate open-

work carving of Cantonese bases resembling 

tangled roots. But above all it is the 

pedestal's symbolic function as a frame that 

turns these natural artifacts into art. 

Change the stand and the figurative content 

of the rock is magically transformed: 

mounted vertically, a rock may remind you of 

a tall, craggy peak; mounted horizontally, 

the same rock suddenly becomes a low bridge 

gently arching across a lake. 

Perhaps the most captivating quality of the 

scholars' rocks is their uncanny duality of 

scale, their seamless slippage between the 

miniature and the monumental. In the blink 

of an eye, a rock that would fit comfortably 

in the palm of your hand swells into a vast 

mountain landscape with soaring summits and 

dramatic overhangs. Stare at one of these 

rocks long enough, and you start to imagine 

tiny figures crawling along the peaks and 

ridges, boldly venturing out onto dangerous 

precipices. But for the viewer lost in a 

pleasant state of dreamy reverie, the danger 

is safely contained as an object of 

esthetic contemplation. Translated into the 

language of classical Western esthetics, 

this sensation is precisely what Kant had in 

mind when he characterized the sublime as 

that precarious mixture of pleasure and awe 

when we apprehend our own puniness in the 

face of the threatening immensity of nature. 

Chinese scholars' rocks, like any really 

good art, serve as dynamic conduits between 

the voluptuous corporeality of sensual 

experience and the lofty abstraction of 

intellectual reflection. For the Chinese 

literati who collected them, as well as for 

contemporary viewers first discovering them, 

these stunningly evocative forms speak to 

the right side of the brain with an unusual 

directness, gently goading the imagination 

into the dreamy stratosphere of invention 

and speculation.

"Worlds within Worlds: The Richard 

Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars'

Rocks," Asia Society Galleries, New 

York, Mar. 28 - Aug. 18, 1996.

Mia Fineman is a New York writer.