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Scholar Rocks
Lingbi Rock with Carved Marble Base (Ming dynasty)
Exhibited and illustrated: Field of Stones, New York: China 2000 Fine Art, 2001, and published in the exhibition catalogue, plate 16.

This unusual black Lingbi scholar rock stands gracefully in the white marble basin with seasonal flowers carved on four sides. To borrow the verses by Su Shi (1037-1101) in the 'Suyuan Stone Catalog', 'Its beauty cannot be imitated by brush and ink nor created by any skillful ax, as it is heavenly made by nature over eons.'

The Chinese interest in collecting rocks for religious or aesthetic purposes has been traced back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) when Chinese connoisseurs began to use large stones to decorate their gardens and courtyards. Evolving from appreciation of the larger garden rocks, Chinese literati carried smaller size rocks indoors where they could be admired and meditated over in their sparse studios. A scholar's rock is the most common English name given to the small, individual stones that have been appreciated by educated and artistic Chinese at least since the Song dynasty (960-1270).

Small rocks symbolize mountains that expand into landscapes. The symbolism is not mere representation, since Chinese philosophy provides for a direct interconnected relationship between the symbol and the thing symbolized. The miniature rock is a microcosmic model of the mountain, which is a microcosm of the universe in the way that the earth (yin) is a microcosm for the macrocosm of heaven (yang).

In earlier times, when scholar rocks were mainly placed outdoors, and admired for their natural beauty, they would either have been partially buried (to keep them upright) or placed in a stone or marble planter. The custom of displaying rocks in basins seems to have continued as the norm well into the Ming dynasty. In 1567, Ming emperor Longqing restarted trade with other empires in Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia; thus many precious materials, like huanghuali and zitan woods could be imported. The trend of using wood bases for scholar rocks gradually replaced the Jin, Tang, Song, and Yuan style of using stone bases. The aesthetic of displaying scholar rocks was mentioned in the book, Tan shi (Discussion on Rock) by Qing scholar Liang Jiutu (1816-1880), who specified that a scholar rock on a wooden base should be placed by a bright window on a clear table; a scholar rock set in a basin should be placed by the curved balustrade. Rocks set in a basin with water sometimes create in the imagination a fanciful paradise known as Mt. Penglai, which is said to be on an island in the eastern end of the Bohai Sea, where the immortals live.

Lingbi rocks are ranked first among the four types of famous Chinese scholar rocks. This type of rock is found in Lingbi county of Anhui Province, China. They are made of fine-grained, delicately textured limestone and lie deep in the red mud of the Qingshi Mountains. Naturally shaped, they need no cutting or carving. Depleted after generations of mining, high quality Lingbi are now quite rare. They are hard and an ordinary knife cannot cut them. Their mineral composition is such that they produce a metallic, resonant sound when tapped. Hence they are also called 'resonant rocks' (bayinshi). They were sometimes used for making chimes and are thus also known as 'chime rocks'. Lingbi rocks are beautiful and clear-cut, with a frame of soft lines. Combining masculine beauty with antique simplicity, they have been admired by connoisseurs for centuries.