Between a rock and a hallowed place

To Eastern eyes, they are symbolic replicas of the mountains of the immortals; to us they are riverbed debris.
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The Independent Culture
THE LAST five years have seen an explosion of new interest in buying rocks - lumps of stone selected for their wonderfully evocative shapes by Chinese and Japanese connoisseurs of the past. In a recent auction in Peking, a 20in yellow rock was sold for $30,000 (pounds 19,000) - the auction was held in US dollars - while Sotheby's set an all-time auction record in New York in November1993 when they sold a 5ft-high white rock riddled with holes for $71,250 (pounds 45,500).

Most people like rocks. Who hasn't picked up a curious stone on the beach, or on a mountain walk, and taken it home? They must litter windowsills and tables up and down the land. But in Britain we don't expect to pay for them; we've never had a rock collecting cult, or thought in a rigorous way about their aesthetics.

The Chinese, by contrast, have been rock fanciers for 2,000 years. In China, rocks perform, broadly speaking, the ornamental role of sculpture in the West. The Japanese, who picked up much of their culture from China and adapted it to local tastes, have been into rocks since the sixth century. Stones featured among the gifts taken by a Chinese delegation to the Japanese Empress Regent Suiko (AD592-628), and they were greatly admired at court.

An unprecedented opportunity to see what this mysterious Oriental aesthetic is all about is currently offered by the London gallery Sydney Moss. This tiny gallery next to Claridges is now run by its founder's son, Paul Moss, London's leading specialist dealer in old Chinese paintings. His summer show, "When Men and Mountains Meet", is devoted to Chinese and Japanese rocks, the earliest probably "harvested" in the Sung Dynasty (AD960-1279) and the latest in the last few decades. According to US collector Richard Rosenblum, it is "the best collection of rocks ever offered to the public".

Rosenblum is a world-class rock aficionado, a sculptor who began buying rocks in the mid-1970s. "I started off buying for $100 or so. At that time the dealers who had one or two often wouldn't sell. They had the rocks because they liked them, and they were too cheap to make money on." Prices have only begun to rise in the last five years, he says. He now has around 2,000 Chinese rocks and his collection will be exhibited at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, next year. The catalogue, in which Rosenblum is attempting to date and classify every piece, is expected to become the first modern reference book on the subject.

Moss has never tried showing stones before, but it is characteristic of him to have a go. A natural enthusiast, he has been seeking for years to stir Western interest in the taste of the scholar connoisseurs of old China. He has produced a series of exquisite and instructive catalogues on paintings and scholar's taste objects - those items that littered their desks, such as ink blocks, brushwashers, seals ... and rocks.

In China, the scholar class were the cultural leaders. They devoted themselves to poetry, music, calligraphy and painting, all of which they created themselves. From the second or third century AD onwards, all the great artists and poets were scholars. Their ideal was to drop out of the Confucian bureaucratic system and retire to country villas where they could concentrate on communing with nature, making art, getting drunk and talking to friends - though several major artists managed to combine painting with working for the government.

One of the earliest recorded stone collectors was a poet and painter, Mi Fu (AD1051-1107), still regarded by the Chinese as a paradigm of connoisseurs. The Emperor recognised his distinction by granting him a government role and, as recounted in the introduction to Moss's catalogue, "he was greeted by his future colleagues with the elaborately prescribed ceremonies ... Mi, however, catching sight of a particularly wonderful specimen of the garden rocks that were customarily set up in Chinese courtyards, abruptly turned his back on the assembled officials. Bowing low before the rock, he exclaimed "Elder Rock! My teacher! My teacher!"

The catalogue introduction, by Professor John Hay of the University of California, describes how the rocks fitted into the Chinese cosmology and spiritual life. In simple terms, they were symbols representing miniature versions of the mountains of the immortals which are a central feature of Buddhist and Taoist mythology. They shared the same "energy- matter world" and embodied the same structural dynamics as mountains, according to Hay.

Two kinds of rocks are collected in China, garden rocks and desk rocks. The Moss exhibition is devoted to the latter - there is nothing over 35in high. They are mounted on carved wooden stands, cleverly adapted to the shape of the rock, and range in price from pounds 400 to pounds 60,000. The exhibition is roughly half-and-half Chinese and Japanese pieces; the Japanese ones are mostly smaller and cheaper.

Chinese criteria for "judging" a rock are not yet fully understood in the West. They include the date at which the rock was turned into an ornament, its shape, its size and where the stone itself came from. Dating is still so little understood that Moss has played safe and ignored it in his catalogue; he goes no further than describing the wooden stands as "old" or "new". According to Richard Rosenblum, who helped sort out the quality of the rocks in the exhibition, more than half of them date back to the Ming dynasty (AD1368-1644) or earlier.

As far as shape is concerned, the more contorted and extraordinary the piece, the more it is valued - eccentricity has always been venerated in China. Rosenblum says they should ideally start narrow, get wider as they go up and have an overhang. Virtually all of the old rocks come from lakes, caves or riverbeds, and the water worked on them to produce strange channels and holes, as well as polishing the stone to give it a skin- like patina.

The very first book on stone collecting, Tu Wan's 11th-century Stone Catalogue of the Cloudy Forest, classifies stones according to the location they come from and the mechanics of removal and preparation. As today, the most sought-after rocks were the convoluted limestone pieces dredged from the bottom of Lake T'ai, between Shanghai and Nanking in eastern China; this source had run out by the end of the Ming Dynasty (AD1644). Other major types are the Ling-pi rock from Anhui province, and the Ying- shih from Kuang-chou. They are all represented in the Moss exhibition.

Finding rocks of this calibre is nowadays extremely difficult. They have never been much collected in the West and the Red Guards smashed many of those that remained in China during the Cultural Revolution. The Moss rocks all come from Japan; the collection was pieced together from Japanese antique shops and specialist stone dealers by Brian Harkins, another London dealer in Oriental art, with whom Moss has collaborated. Harkins is based in Gray's Antiques Market, and he goes to Japan four or five times a year.

Harkins was taught rock appreciation by a Japanese professor, and his enthusiasm has earned him the friendship of Japanese connoisseurs. There are several collectors' societies in Japan where the rocks are known as "suiseki", literally "water stones". Matsuura Arishige, director of the Nippon Suiseki Association, has advised on the more obscure places of origin of the Japanese exhibits in the show.

Harkins underlines that the Japanese aesthetic is different from the Chinese. The Japanese like to find figurative associations or reminders in their stones - of an animal, a fish, a god, a mountain - and the distinction of former owners of the stone, when they are known, is of major importance. The most expensive piece in the show, at pounds 60,000, is a 5in-high rock that looks like Mount Fuji with a cloud on top; it belonged, at the beginning of this century, to a famous Japanese connoisseur, Tomioka Tessai, and is accompanied by calligraphy, poems and paintings made by him in its honour.

This aesthetic is so foreign to the West that it is difficult to envisage anyone but a Japanese collector paying such a price for a piece of riverbed debris. On the other hand, rock collecting fits in with the new respect for nature sparked by ecological concern, and the new Western interest in Eastern philosphies. It's a trend that could catch on. !