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Spirit Stones

Mountains are the Earth’s hourglass. Living rocks rising and falling with the years, morphing, congealing, and shaping into one another to create the rocks and sands of the shore. 

Humans have always found themselves questioning the nature that surrounds us and framing our lives through its understanding. For thousands of years, the three main Chinese schools of thought--Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism--have been grounded in nature. Most traditional Chinese holidays center themselves on nature or nature-based rituals. Furthermore, all of the great Chinese poets and painters became such through years of confrontation and communion with different elements of nature. 

From this deep veneration for nature sprang poets of gongshi, those scholars who created poems and paintings after using the shape of the rock to meditate on and focus their thoughts. Gongshi has been translated as “scholar’s rock,” although others know it translated as “spirit stone.” These weren’t just any rocks: spirit stones were naturally formed stones that bore strange, otherworldly shapes. Poet and scholar Bai Juyi wrote of one stone:

Turning my head around, I ask the pair of rocks:
‘Can you keep company with an old man like myself?’
Although the rocks cannot speak,
They promise that we will be three friends.
Although the Chinese had been meditating upon rocks since Bai Juyi’s induction of them into temples in 826 CE, the true practice of stone appreciation was developed by Mi Fu in 12th century CE. Mi Fu created categories in which to appreciate each stone based off of aesthetics of mountains. Shou referred to the thinness, delicateness and the shape of the stone; zhou described the ridges and grooves; lou concerned cavities and channels; and tou spoke to the openness of the stone, expressed by holes and perforations to let light pass through.

Spirit stones embodied energy in both nature and humans, also known as Qi. Meditating on the stones led to many poems of the Chinese scholarly tradition that can be found in Chinese Poems, Translations from the Chinese, and The Book of Chinese Poetry.

By Thad Higa

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