In China, viewing stones (scholars rocks and spirit stones known by the Chinese as "Gongshi") have been an art of appreciation for over a thousand years. During the Tang dynasty (618-907AD), it was said that a garden could not be beautiful without such rocks, and that a studio lacked elegance without gongshi. They were transported to Japan and Korea and presented as fine tributes.
Dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Chinese religious and aesthetic interest in collecting rocks was first based on decorating their courtyards and gardens. Evolving from the appreciation of larger garden rocks was "Scholars rocks," smaller stones appreciated for the ability to carry them and to display them indoors - for meditation and beauty.
The garden rock displays represented paradises known as Penglai, or the Eastern Isle of the Immortals. These paradises were perceived to be three or more mountains isolated in the Eastern Sea - Fanghu, Yingzhou, and Penglai, tall and craggy isolated peaks - accessible havens to the immortals but not to mere humans. A mystical place of beauty and wonder, which later became part of Daoist tradition.
Like the Pengali paradises, today's garden rocks are often displayed alone or grouped to represent a mountain range or sometimes a one specific mountain. Most garden rocks are shades of white or gray, and can be as tall as twenty feet high from their base, extremely weathered and worn.
Scholars' Rocks are smaller than garden rocks and are selected for more refined qualities, small enough to rest on a table. Sizes vary from miniature stones of about one inch to four or five feet in height. Scholars brought these portable mountains into their studios and used them for meditation and contemplation. Some were used as brush rests, censors or seals - but the majority were viewed as artistic treasures. The most highly regarded rocks were of limestone that "emitted a bell-like ring when struck."
Scholars' Rocks are usually displayed in carved wood stands, and the stands themselves are often works of art as well, with stylistic or symbolic images in great detail. The most highly sought stones in China are black Lingbishi and slate gray Yingshi.
Scholars' Rocks vary from white, yellow, red or black -- the most prized color. During the Ming and Qing periods (1368-1911) marble, malachite, turquoise, yellow quartz, soapstone and became popular with collectors for their colorful appearance.
These rocks represented a focus for meditation and religious or philosophic principles to the Chinese scholars. They were an inspiration for contemplation prior to painting or writing.
Most rocks resembled mountains and natural wonders of the world; and many represented people, animals, and mythical creatures. And foremost, they appreciated "surfaces that suggest great age, forceful profiles that evoke the grandeur of nature, overlapping layers or planes that impart depth, and hollows or perforations that create rhythmic, harmonious patterns."