he breadth of Chinese art presents fascinating contrasts. Consider the ornate and luxurious porcelain of the 18th century, juxtaposed with the subtle, humble ceramics of the Song dynasty. Reflecting the myriad chapters of history, the vastness of Chinese art mirrors the environments in which it was produced and the complex strata of its society. Our own era has its complexities and layers too. Embracing the legacy imparted in these objects of yesteryear leads us inevitably to examine some of the common threads of prevailing thought which accompanied their creation. Through this understanding, we consider how Chinese art might find continuing resonance within our contemporary world.
Chinese Art, Rich and Infinitely Varied
The market for Chinese ceramics has a long, demonstrated history in the West. The Oriental Ceramic Society was founded in 1921 in London and nurtured a community of collectors in Europe and the US. When Julian Thompson held the first Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in 1973, this breakthrough move to Asia still bore the hallmarks of a quintessentially English interest in Chinese ceramics.
However, this changed in the years following, as Chinese art became the cornerstone of Sotheby’s operations in Asia, and with the dramatic entrance of Chinese collectors in the late 1990s who possessed strong connoisseurship and great interest to acquire. Their taste was broader than ceramics alone, spanning the breadth of Chinese art, including jadeite carvings, imperial seals, calligraphy, paintings, and more.
When we consider the enduring appeal of Chinese art, we must acknowledge its multiplicity. Part of approaching a true understanding of Chinese art is to know the scale of it, and how much there is to learn. In seeking to deconstruct the misconception of over simplifying Chinese art, the continuity of its discourse, which is bound by language and thought systems that run throughout Chinese history, is the key.
“The notion of Chinese art exists through its continuity,” says Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s Chairman, Asia and Worldwide Head and Chairman of Chinese Works of Art. Against the rise and fall of dynasties, there is a thread Chow identifies which runs through the course of its craftsmanship, whether for ceramics, jade or bronzes, which weave through the millennia, constantly refined and perfected.
As such, interest in individual categories within Chinese art, whether it be ink, jade, ceramics, bronze, or others, may ebb and flow slightly as the spotlight of attention oscillates. Nonetheless the common thread remains. One still understated yet increasingly important area of connoisseurship ripe in potential may be that of scholar’s rocks. Prized by the literati, influenced by Taoist teachings, scholar’s rocks are attracting a contemporary audience who find resonance within these works of nature.
The Lessons of Taoism
“Taoism responds to people's concerns and anxieties today, from contemporary interest in organic food to environmental ethics.”
Originating from ancient China, Taoism is inextricably linked to the philosopher Lao Tzu, to whom is attributed as writing the guiding text of Taoism, Tao Te Ching in around 400 BC, though the authorship and date remains debated. By the eight century, Taoism held increased prominence as the prevailing philosophy of the Tang dynasty, and henceforth existed alongside Buddhism and Confucianism as great influences in government, science, the arts and the social fabric.
One of the core tenets of Taoism is the principle of yin and yang; the balancing of opposing yet inseparable forces, for example brightness and shade, hot and cold, action and inaction. Yin and yang imply interconnections within the universe and harmonies of opposites.
“The balance that we find in Chinese art is not a balance of symmetry. It's a balance we find through movement, such as in calligraphy,” says Chow.
An advanced system of thought, Taoism can be deeply resonant to those seeking knowledge of the human condition. There are no easy answers, however. Taoism therefore has an ineffability and a ubiquity to it which frustrate easy explanation but reward life-long investigation. This fascination is described in Chapter 35 of the Tao Te Ching in the following line: “If one looks at Tao, there is nothing solid to see. If one listens to it there is nothing loud enough to hear. Yet if one uses it, it is inexhaustible.”
When we consider the longevity of Taoism, and its vast, multifaceted dimensions, there is an immediate parallel to the long history of Chinese art, with its breadth and resistance to easy categorisation. However, there are specific aspects of Taoism which have made it a unique accompaniment and inspiration to Chinese artists and poets over the centuries.
The Taoist Aesthetic in Scholar’s Rocks
The Taoist theory of yin and yang explains the origin and alterations of matter in the universe in terms of the five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water. In the Song Dynasty, an influential treatise on physics appeared, titled Wuli Lun. One line reads: “The essence of earth is stone; stone is the kernel of qi.” Consequently, it was believed that scholar’s rocks held the secret to energy and could even extend one’s life span.
Gongshi, or scholar’s rocks, gradually became an accompaniment to the life of the poet or artist in his studio, a focal point of literati gatherings, and the subject of intellectual discourse in its own right. Mi Fu (1051–1107), a prominent Chinese painter, poet, and calligrapher, penned theories on scholar’s rocks, as did many other artists. In the 12th century, Tu Wan authored a comprehensive, detailed catalogue, Yunlin Shipu, in tribute. The Emperor Huizong Mi, who reigned from 1101–1126, was an obsessive collector.
“The stone is patterned and ugly. From this one word “ugly” comes a thousand shapes and ten thousand forms.” – Su Shi
There are fundamental aesthetic links between Taoist teachings and the scholar’s rock. Taoism encourages the revelation of identifying beauty within perceived ugliness. Liu Xizai, a Qing dynasty literati, observed that beauty is to be found, not through polish and artifice, but by reality and in nature: “In the world of scholar's rocks, the ugly is beautiful. Ugliness in the extreme, is beautiful in the extreme.”
“It's a fascinating aesthetic. The human intervention is minimal, and they remain objects of inspiration [to this day] to artists in China and in the West. Emperors, poets and painters of imperial times felt that fascination.”
Physically bound by the four walls of his studio, the scholar in his contemplative state would allow his imagination to extend to the wider world. The rock became a symbol of that microcosm of the universe that human understanding sought to reach for. “When an educated man of traditional times appreciated a scholar's rock, he held within his mind an image of mountains peaks, using the miniature to picture the magnificent,” wrote Huang Hsien-Long, Master of Jiansongge in 2008 for the sale of Tao The Jiansongge Collection at Sotheby’s. Thus through contemplating the rock, the scholar metaphorically leaves one place, to embrace the potential exploration of all others.
The scholar’s rock offers the presence of chaos and asymmetry in the studio. In the Song dynasty, poets and intellectuals would gather around a scholar’s rock in animated intellectual discussion. Through the aesthetic that the rock represented, ugliness became a departure point for inspiration; a challenging idea rooted in Taoism.
In our present times, scholar’s rocks remain a great inspiration to artists. Chinese artist Liu Dan has pursued the study of scholar’s rocks in his paintings since the 1980s, while Chinese sculptor Zhan Wang has updated the scholar’s rock concept in scale and material, working with stainless steel for public installation. In the west, YBA artist Damien Hirst maintains his own diverse collection of scholar’s rocks.
In his mid-19th century publication, Tanshi (“Chats on Rocks”) Liang Jiutu stated that “in collecting, it is the choice of rocks that comes first. If the rock does not seem like a painting by the powers of nature, then you shouldn’t choose it.” The rock remains an object of collecting interest to artists today, arguably because of this aesthetic link between painting and stone. As Chow observes, “Perhaps the greatest collection today is by Zeng Xiaojun in Beijing, a wonderful ink painter. Seeing his collection is very moving. When you see his collection, you form an understanding of the person.”
The Enduring Allure of Chinese Art
When we examine a scholar’s rock, feeling the miniature peaks and troughs, the rough, the smooth, the voids and the protuberances on our fingers, we are in communion with the literati of the past. Not just that, but in those contrasts, we are feeling the harmony of opposites, the vital tenet of Taoism.
By touching a treasure from the past, we share the feeling that emperors, literati, craftsmen and workers enjoyed in their own way centuries before. Many of these items could still be used for the original function for which they were created. Last October, a world auction record was set at Sotheby’s for the sale of a Huanghuali folding chair from the Ming dynasty, garnering substantial press attention; similarly, a Ru ware brush washer, and a Ming dynasty chicken cup have taken their place in the headlines and in the public imagination. The fascination of Chinese art runs far and deep. By beginning a collection, we are afforded a chance to elevate above our own lives into a rich vein of history, into times and places that lie outside of our experience. In so doing, we rise above the mortal into something approaching the spiritual. In the words of author, dealer and collector Hugh Moss, “The viewer… sits in his studio and is lifted on the drifting incense smoke that curled between the tiny peaks, to transcend the dusty world and to dance beyond the gods.”