Strange Stones

On Strange Stones and Grains of Sand

From the Song dynasty until the early 20th century, your grasp on reality would not have been called into question had you offered any serious collector in China a dozen monumental Buddhist sculptures in exchange for one fine strange stone.

Whether for the garden or studio, whether mounted in dishes or planters, these microcosmic landscapes have been sought after and revered by influential aesthetes of China for more than a millennium.

In The Art of Understanding- A New Perspective, I offer a theoretical background which helps to explain why strange stones have been so highly valued in China, one of the world’s most advanced aesthetic cultures (London: Profile Books, 2016). There, art was considered primarily as a process rather than a product and the audience was equally important as the artist in fulfilling the complex, multi-level communication involved. The process was a vehicle for enhancing understanding – which, with the Daoist/Buddhist perspective that went hand in hand with Confucianism offered an undifferentiated approach to knowing which is incompatible with but complimentary to the rational, reasoning mind and which grants an essential perspective in understanding meaning. Together, the intellectual and trans-intellectual modes of consciousness were seen as a path to enlightenment. Thus monumental pieces such as Buddhist sculpture or Tang horses were never considered high art but rather, as functional pieces designed to propitiate the gods and provide for the afterlife. Their high art was intimate and private, made on a manageable scale and was a powerful channel of communication between the two modes of consciousness, quite apart from their more prosaic and manifold communicative roles.

Naturalness in art was a paramount concern because achieving this level of comprehension required the partnership not only of the two modes of consciousness, but of humankind and nature. This concept transcended the medium – in the Chinese tradition high art was ultimately defined by the level of wisdom that produced it and not by any particular medium or art form. In all the high arts, however hard the process of learning the necessary skills and refining them may have been, what ultimately mattered was a level of transcendent naturalness and spontaneity, as if the creator had simply reached into the Dao and dipped a brush into absolute profundity. In turn, this led, precociously early, to a reverence for found arts which awaited the knowing eye of human intelligence to declare them art – with, perhaps, a little editing, mounting or framing to emphasize the point.

Over tens, or millions, or even billions of years, nature had been mindlessly creating art with unthinkable resources and power. On the macro-scale we wonder at the grandeur of mountains, ancient cedars and pines, and thousand-foot waterfalls. These were, indeed, inspirational sustenance for the artist. On a micro-scale they became microcosms when harvested or re-sited in gardens and studios. Set on a scholar’s desk, they represented the grandeur of nature granting an infinite range of possibilities from the playful to the profound (particularly to the Daoist mind, although the Daoist mind would hardly bother with the distinction).

From this premise a second layer of delight arose which fulfilled the role of art with extraordinary efficiency. Art was intended, at the highest level, to be truly meditative, helping aesthetes escape from every-day reality and attaining enlightenment; it served to dismantle illusionary barriers set up by the intellect and allow individuals to grasp meaning as a whole. To achieve this, Daoist disciples and Chan (Zen) Buddhists practiced breathing and meditational techniques in order to still the ‘chattering of the birds in the birdcage’ and grasp what lies beyond their fragmentary grasp on the nature of reality. The aesthete selects a landscape handscroll and immerses him or herself in the experience until time disappears and the prattling of the intellect ceases. In such a state, we are open to enlightenment and in the Daoist and Buddhist traditions, capable of uniting with the ultimate reality, becoming the Dao or the Buddha and dwelling thereafter beyond the gods.

I had inscribed the following on a handscroll titled, The Alchemist’s Companions, which expresses my alter ego, an immortal Stone Fool and Staff Master who wanders the centuries unfettered, encountering a fellow Stone Fool who was also an alchemist:

I met the Alchemist in a strange stone I discovered cast aside by the waters of an underground river which ran through the end of a deep cave beneath a cliff not far from my mountain retreat. Struggling home with it, I set it up by the hearth and spent a few days becoming familiar with its surface before noticing that it had an identical cave at the base of a similar cliff tucked away amongst its crevices.

The temptation was irresistible; settling comfortably in front of the stone, I followed my usual practice of deep breathing while focusing intently upon the point in the stone where I would enter, stilling the chatter of the birds in the birdcage of my mind. As ever I had no notion of how long the process took or when the transition, the transmutation, occurred, I just suddenly found myself beyond the World of Red Dust – in the stone. Recalling every detail of the path I had chosen, I climbed it to the foot of the cave.

Here there was no river, no sound of rushing water as it mindlessly carved solid stone into sculpture; only a distant glow of daylight. I trod carefully towards it and stepped out into an idyllic valley ablaze with blossoming peach trees where, by the bank of a broad river, the retreat of the Alchemist stood, the old man there to welcome me – expecting me.
The process of achieving the above transmutation was made available through a strange stone. Echoes of Tao Qian’s 4th century masterpiece, Peach Blossom Spring, ring clear but it reflect, as do so many other similar ideas of transcending time, an obsession with the other-worldly realm of the enlightened sage. Such literature in which ordinary mortals, often through a cave or some convenient portal between one realm and another, enter arcadia to discover an ideal world outside of time can be traced back long before the 4th century. A Daoist equivalent from the Han dynasty onward is the recurring ability of the enlightened to disappear into a gourd containing a limitless, alternative reality. For these reasons, strange stones were held in an equivalent regard as art as would a major landscape painting, even if they were barely touched by the human hand other than in isolating them from nature.

The Chinese obsession with strange stones as high art lasted as a general rule until the arrival of Western collectors, curators and dealers in China in the late-Qing dynasty. They were unable to comprehend an old bit of rock stuck on a stand as art as most of them also failed to understand paintings and calligraphy and even the poetry of the culture. Instead, they favoured a more comfortable range of arts with which to introduce to the West the exoticism of the mysterious East. They took home Buddhist sculptures, Tang horses, ancient bronzes, jades and ceramics. It was not until the first half of the 20th century that a deeper understanding of the arts of China began to emerge in the West, at a time when turmoil in China was turning the culture on its head, diverting its traditional collectors. For a while, the importance of strange stones as high art became almost invisible other than to a few scholars and collectors in China and and very slowly to some in the West, encouraged by such giants of cross-cultural communication as Laurence Sickman, Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Sherman Lee, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In the last two decades an appreciation for strange stones has come back like a tiger, roaring across the art world. They are now regularly offered at auction, including entire collections in dedicated catalogues – unthinkable a mere decade ago. They also figure as a standard subject for the equally re-energized Chinese ink painting tradition which continues the old literati mode of painting, once considered dying from irrelevance. The term ‘the last literatus’ has been applied to so many Chinese scholars in the past century that if they were all gathered together they could probably form two football teams.

This reassessment of an ancient obsession with strange stones carries with it the usual potential for confusion as we come to terms with the aesthetic value, history, and how to respond to what is, to many who fuel the market, a strange new aesthetic experience. It also carries with it the usual broad-brush response among collectors, with an overemphasis on assumed rules of thumb. Although connoisseurship is rapidly advancing with ancient Chinese texts on the subject at our disposal as well as interpreters of this ancient knowledge, we focus as yet on the classic types of stone made famous in antiquity (Taihu, Ying, Lingbi, etc.), and favour, whether as garden, or indoor stones, those with intriguing shapes, perforations (ah, those magical caves again!), and old stands so we have some indication of a terminus ante quem for dating.

There is, however, a great deal more to be learned. In Tu Wan’s 12th century, Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Mountain, about two thirds of the work is devoted to small, strangely marked stones, pebbles with natural designs and intriguing markings. This is confirmed by a work published in the seventeenth century, Suyuan shipu (Suyuan’s compendium of ornamental rocks), which purports to be a catalogue of Song Emperor Xuanhe’s collection and illustrates a series of such pebbles. These pebbles are also illustrated in Gerard Tsang and Hugh Moss, Arts from the Scholar’s Studio (Hong Kong: The Oriental Ceramic Society, 1986, p. 200). These textual references offer insight into an alternative stone aesthetic that appeared to have co-existed with the love of the larger rocks we now readily appreciate and are still found today.

A recent phenomenon began to emerge in China again of seeking out such pebbles and valuing them among strange stones. Many of those today come, according to those who trade in them, from the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang or Gobi desert in Mongolia, where they seem to have been scoured by innumerable sandstorms over the millennia, revealing a personality lacking in ordinary pebbles. What is more, some of these recently discovered pebbles are compellingly similar in their exotic markings to those in the Suyuan shipu, suggesting the same, or at least a similar source all those centuries ago.

The human mind loves to categorize and strange stones are a viable category of connoisseurship. However, if the definition of high art in China relies upon the profundity of meaning behind it, then the significance of strange stones and what might or might not be included in this category relies similarly upon the influence of those who collect them. It is worth remembering that the original concept of naturalness, of course, allows for any of the bountiful arts of nature. There are many strangely shaped pieces of wood from antiquity which were treated just as if they were strange stones and similarly set in the home. Although we might choose to distinguish between a mountain-like stone on a stand, a naturalistic wood sculpture or a luminescent pebble in the palm of the hand, the distinctions between them begin to fade aesthetically.

Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, in the New Year of 2016