Provenance: Formerly in a Chinese collection of scholars’ rocks The rock is horizontally oriented, able to be exhibited from either side, and suggesting, if approached with an open mind and fertile imagination, the head of a horse or dragon with jaw opened beneath the gaping nostril and the deep-set open eye wide and round beneath the skullcap. One side has more explosive hollows, sharp pinnacles and circular cavities. The opposite side is characterized by its more serene, less turbulent and varied form and surface. The stone is black in color, the surface slightly rippled or dimpled, and the sheen ranging from lustrous to quite shiny. White calcite veins are shot throughout. On the more reserved side the veins are generally vertical in orientation. On the wilder side, the calcite seems to form a web of fine white filaments that drapes over the stone. The wooden stand is probably late Qing in date.
In what other society do men of letters and government officials en masse obsess over flowers and collect rocks? These connections and associations are really quite extraordinary when one steps back and looks from afar, but to the Chinese it is the most natural thing in the world to desire just the right peony for the courtyard or the perfect stone to be displayed on the desktop or placed in the garden. By the Song dynasty (A.D. 960—1279) the appreciation of stones had become its own category of endeavor with specific criteria for assessing a stone’s character and beauty, including its form whether slender or thick, its surface whether smooth or wrinkled, the relationship between solids and voids, the presence of indentations, channels, peaks and valleys, and the nature of its balance or awkwardness, its symmetry or asymmetry, its resonance and rhythm, and its evocativeness, perhaps of a landscape, a rushing stream, or the head of a horse or dragon.
Artists and craftsmen immortalized stones in their works. See, for example, the fantastic rock in the garden on the porcelain jar in the present journal, cat. 60, or that in a painting by aJapanese artist in cat. 34, as well as a fan painting with a rather eccentric looking gentleman in the company of a most magnificent rock (fig. 1). Literati captured the essence of stones in poetry and writers over many centuries have addressed the multitudinous aspects of the physical appearance and characteristics of stones as well as their geographical sources. All of their interests in the life of stones continues to engage artists, scholars, collectors, and students yet today.
The present stone might be identified as a Ying stone, named after Yingde in Guangdong province that was the most important source for a particular type of fine-grained limestone, usually black but not exclusively, and notable for its calcite deposits and rippled surfaces (figs. 2-3). The calcite inclusions are in the form of veins or discrete pockets, and the color ranges from bright white to buff or yellowish, depending on exposure to soil or other materials. The glossiness of a stone’s surface might result from its long presence in water-filled cave, according to some sources, and the stone’s appearance can be enhanced through cutting or sawing to rework surface areas.
Due to the furrows and channels running throughout Ying stones, the eruption of the rippled surfaces into serried peaks, and the holes opening into the promise of further vistas yet unseen, some of these stones were appreciated for their suggestions of vast and mysterious landscapes, landscapes that one might wander through in the mind’s eye simply in the presence of such a stone. So revered were these great beauties that an iconic image is that of the incomparable Northern Song calligrapher/painter/collector/connoisseur Mi Fu (A.D. 1051-1107), seated with the rock in figure 1, actually bowing to his “brother,” a stone, no less a gentleman, Mi Fu would have maintained, than Mi himself.
The characteristics of Ying stones noted above are often exhibited by stones from other areas in China, each with their own names, salient features, and histories (fig. 4). Similarities between types often make identifying a stone with absolute accuracy impossible. Furthermore, ascribing a date to a stone might seem odd; they are, after all, in the whole scheme of material culture, timeless, and might even be regarded as immortals. When a date is suggested, it is based not on the stone itself but on when it is believed the stone was originally “collected.” Unless there is some historical document to pin down this event, for example an incised date or a datable stand, it is really anyone’s call.
Ying stones had been discovered and appreciated as collectable already by the Song dynasty and during the Ming period they became popular alternatives for Lingbi stones, as sources for those most highly prized of scholars’ rocks had become severely depleted. To this day, although there is great diversity in color, surface and form among Ying rocks, the black variety, with rippled surface and suggestive apertures, as represented by the present stone, is most highly valued, even if its catapult into fame was associated with the history of another type of stone.
1. Studies in the West include Hu Kemin, The Spirit of Gongshi: Chinese Scholar’s Rocks,Newton, 1998; Robert Mowry, Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars’ Rocks, Cambridge, 1997; John Hay, Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock in Chinese Art, China Institute in America, New York, 1986; and Edward Schafer, Tu Wan’s Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest: A Commentary and Synopsis, Berkeley, 1961.
2. Mowry, ibid., p. 204.
Fig. 1: Ren Yi (1840-1896), “Mi Fu and His Rock Friend,” after John Hay, Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock in Chinese Art, China Institute in America, New York, 1986, pl. 17 (no. 48), p. 33.
Fig. 2: Black Ying rock, after Hu Kemin, The Spirit of Gongshi: Chinese Scholar’s Rocks, Newton, 1998, pl. 86, p. 82.
Fig. 3: Black Ying rock, after Hu Kemin, The Spirit of Gongshi: Chinese Scholar’s Rocks, Newton, 1998, pl. 73, p. 75.
Fig. 4: Lingbi rock, Private Collection, after Hu Kemin, The Spirit of Gongshi: Chinese Scholar’s Rocks, Newton, 1998, pl. 109, p. 93.