NEW YORK - My favorite Chinese novel is Journey to the West, which is a fictional account of Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India to bring back the Buddhist sutras. The hero of the story is actually not Xuanzang, but his main disciple, Monkey. Monkey is born from a rock that after being exposed to the essences of heaven and earth since the beginning of time, eventually gives birth to a stone monkey which comes to life.

Rocks are such an important part of Chinese consciousness that three of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature actually begin with rocks. In Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), the hero, Jia Baoyu is the reincarnation of a rock that was left unused when goddess Nuwa mended the heavens.  As an indication of his past life as a rock, Baoyu was born with a jade stone in his mouth. As such, the novel is also known by the name ‘Story of the Stone.’ In Shuihu zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh), the Emperor Huizong’s demand for fantastic rocks to decorate his imperial gardens causes so much hardship among the common folk that they eventually rebel.

(left) Monkey just after being born from a rock, from the reprinted Qing dynasty hand painted volume of Journey to the West kept in the Pingxiang City Library in Jiangxi province. (right) Emperor Song Huizong’s (1082-1135) painting of Auspicious Dragon Rock currently in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum.

Ever since early man appeared in China and fashioned simple tools from stone, the Chinese have had a love affair with rocks. The earliest rocks were selected for their suitability for tool making. Later, rocks were selected for use in construction, and unusually shaped rocks were venerated as the abode of spirits and earth gods. Even today in Hong Kong, the rock formation just off Bowen Road above Wanchai continues to attract worshippers looking for love.

(left) Guanyin shaped rock in the Marble Mountains, Danang, Vietnam. Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by traditional Chinese culture.
(middle) Rocks representing the earth god, venerated at an outdoor shrine in Ping Shan, Hong Kong.
(right) Lovers' Rock off Bowen Road, Hong Kong, receives prayers from those searching for love.

As Chinese society continued to develop, rocks were appreciated for their natural shapes and beauty.  By the Tang dynasty they were displayed not only in gardens, but also in interior settings, serving to bring nature into the homes of the nobility and literati.

Such rocks, called Scholar’s rocks, provided inspiration to poets and painters. It allowed their minds to wander the natural landscapes while staying indoors. The rocks were admired for their shapes, their material quality, color and texture, sparking the imagination and freeing the minds of their connoisseurs.

(left) A 'Yellow Wax' Scholars Rock, to be offered at Sotheby’s New York, 20th  March 2013, lot 455, Estimate: USD10,000 - 12,000. (middle) A Large Mottled Brown 'Lingbi' Scholar's Rock, to be offered at Sotheby’s New York, 20th  March 2013, lot 458, Estimate: USD15,000 - 20,000.
(right) A 'Shandong Qilian' Scholar's Rock, to be offered at Sotheby’s New York, 20th  March 2013, lot 454, Estimate: USD6,000 - 8,000.

Interesting rocks have always held an esteemed place in Chinese art. They are considered ‘masterpieces of nature.’ The Imperial gardens in the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in Beijing are dotted with fantastic rocks, as are numerous scholars’ gardens in Suzhou, a city famous for its gardens. These garden rocks served to bring a piece of the untamed rugged landscape into the confines of a garden.

Rocks today continue to serve as inspiration for artists and scholars.

(upper left) Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat (b.1943), The Essence of Strange Stones, sold Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 4th April 2012, lot 191 for HKD150,000.00. (upper right) Zhao Meng (b. 1967), Celadon Scholar’s Rock. (lower) Tai Xiangzhou (b. 1968), Scholar’s Rock, 2012, Ink on silk, to be exhibited SHUIMO/ Water  Ink : Chinese Contemporary Ink Paintings. Private Selling Exhibition at Sotheby’s New York, 14th – 28th March 2013.

No Chinese scholar’s studio, or Chinese garden anywhere in the word is complete without its scholars’ rocks, nor can any new age store be considered well-stocked without its selection of stones and rocks inscribed with Chinese characters.

(upper left) Rock in the Summer Palace, Beijing.
(upper middle) Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver, BC, Canada. (upper right) Lansu Garden, Portland, Oregon.
(lower left)  Jixing Garden, Staten Island, New York
(lower right) Rocks for sale on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria, BC, Canada.