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The Adoration Of Rocks: On The Philosophy And Love Of Stones In China And Japan


A brief history, narrated by Alain de Botton, on the love of stones and their spiritual qualities in the Far East.

Beyond possessing a beauty, the word petrofilia describes one of humankind’s oldest obsessions: a love for rocks. Of all the cults to the inanimate beings with which we share the universe, the worship of stones would be capricious were it not so irrefutable. They’re pieces of the planet of a silent and near magical power. The tradition was born in China many centuries ago, and its history is now briefly narrated by Alain de Botton in a charming video at The School of Life.

It all began in China in 826 CE when Bai Juyi, a public servant of the empire and one of the most recognized poets of his time, took a walk around Lake Tai. He noticed two strange rocks of a singular form. These captivated him to such a degree that he decided to take them home. Once there he washed them and wrote a poem about them. In the poem, he describes their disagreeable appearance – yellow, dark and deformed, moldy-looking – and also their cracks and imperfections, admirable witnesses to the processes of the universe and nature, according to the principles of Taoism. Finally, in a touching act, the poet asked the rocks to keep him company in his old age (perhaps because he perceives them as his equals). The rocks, despite being dumb, promise that they will. The poem and the enthusiasm of its author began a taste for stones throughout the east, and one which survives even to this day.

Song Huizong

Years later, in the 12th century, Mi Fu – another eccentric erudite – staged a scene which would reaffirm the privileged place of rocks in the Chinese imagination. Upon being elected magistrate of Wuwei Province, Fu was called to meet the administrators with whom he would be working. As the officials waited to meet him in the gardens at the official residence, the newcomer, walking to greet them suddenly broke from any protocol. Standing before a huge stone, he bowed and addressed the rock as “Elder Brother Rock.” He then gave an elaborate speech in the stone’s honor. By the time he’d finished with this greeting, those who waited for him were perplexed. The episode earned him the nickname “Madman Mi” and fascinated people for centuries. Mi Fu even drew up a treatise describing the four major aesthetic features of any rock: shou (its elegant and erect stature), tou (the holes that allow air and light to pierce the stone), lou (its channels and cracks) and zhou (its surface and texture).

guo xu album

During the Song Dynasty of the 11th and 12th centuries, collecting rocks became a common practice among scholars, artists and people of power. They were mounted on precious, carved wooden bases, and placed in studies. In the case of larger stones, these would be placed in luxurious gardens as ornaments and sources of silent inspiration. In Chinese, they became known as gongshi, or the “scholars’ rocks” (an imprecise translation, according to Botton, the mean is closer to “spirit rocks”) and they were as valuable as paintings or calligraphy. The most sought after were the limestone rocks of Anhui Province.

Like many of the traditions and philosophies of China, by the 15th century, a fondness for stones had arrived in Japan where it was to acquire an aesthetic all its own. The Japanese called the stones suiseki and placed them in containers with sand or water where they served as miniature mountains with respective valleys and lakes. The stones were also used as ornaments in Zen gardens, where they were surrounded by sand in which sophisticated patterns were drawn. The Japanese preferred the smoothest of rocks, where the passage of time could be noted (a reflection of the aesthetic principles of wabi-sabi).

In an essay, Bai Juyi, the man who began the tradition with his small poem of two stones, spoke of an addiction that could result from too long contemplating rocks. He advised wise men to dedicate but a few hours each day to their observations. The admiration of rocks in a society like our own could be thought of as a discreet invitation to seek wisdom outside of our books, in the natural world, in its elements and patterns, and in the small things we normally overlook, such as rocks. As objects, in their singularity and through their silence, they seem to bear wisdom, transformed into the very receptacles of our interiority.


*Images: 1) Lingbi stone feom Anhui. Ming Dynasty, 15th century / Wikimedia Commons; 2) gongshi or “scholar’s rock”, 11th century / Wikimedia Commons; 3) Mi Fu by Guo Xu, 1503 / Wikimedia Commons

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