Rocks and Mountains




Rocks were to the Chinese garden what sculpture was to its European counterpart. A deep appreciation for rocks stemmed from ancient religious attitudes toward nature, which included the veneration of mountains. Rocks were believed to have a concentrated amount of natural energy and symbolized the dwelling places of the Daoist immortals. A region with rugged, lofty and remote terrain was believed to produce especially potent minerals and plants that, when consumed in just the right combination, would guarantee longevity if not immortality itself. Rocks were introduced into the garden as individual specimens and as components of complex rockeries.

As an element, rock is classified by the Chinese as "yang" because it is strong, durable, hard and "male"), but the best garden stones also exhibited spareness and delicacy. Top-heavy, rugged stones that seemed to defy gravity and to hang in the air like clouds were the most highly prized. 


If a rock appeared porous with many holes penetrating all the way through and had a strangely contorted overall form, it was considered a highly valuable asset to the garden. Lake Tai near Suzhou produced the most prized rocks; the chemical composition of the Great Lake caused the limestone on its bed to erode in an irregular fashion.

Why might a garden designer isolate an individual rock like the one at left in its own pavilion?

Lake Tai rock in three-sided pavilion at the Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou
SOURCE:   Photograph courtesy of Jerome Silbergeld, 1983.  

Rocks were placed not only in gardens, but also were treated as art objects, to be put on display inside, perhaps on a scholar's desk.  Certain types of rocks, such as the Lingbi rock, shown to the right, were highly appreciated for their luster, unusual shapes, interesting veining, or the cavities that formed within them.  Often these rocks were highly polished and placed on custom-made stands. 

Why would holes have given stones greater value?

HINT:  The holes in Lake Tai rocks are evidence of the erosive action of a yin element, water, on a yang element, stone. The convoluted and perforated forms are suggestive of mountain grottoes believed abundant in natural energy (qi) and the favorite haunts of immortals.


Lingbi rock

SOURCE:  Robert D. Mowry, Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' Rocks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997), plate 6, p. 163.  Black Lingbi limestone, Kangxi period (1662-1722). Richard Rosenblum Collection.




Rocks were also arranged to form the edges of man-made streams and ponds, with great care taken to make small details like this stream appear as they might in nature.


What is naturalistic about the rocks shown in the garden settings on this page? What seems artificial?

Artificial Stream bed, Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou (Jiangsu province)

SOURCE:  Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of Jerome Silbergeld, 1980.


Grottoes and caves were believed to share in common with the eroded stones from Lake Tai a heightened source of cosmic energy or qi, due to being formed by the concentrated action of water upon stone deep within the earth .  

Why would a cave or rock-cut chamber be considered an ideal place to rest?

Rock chamber at Mountain Dwelling of Encircling Excellence

SOURCE:  Pan Guxi, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Jianzhu yishu bian 3: Yuanlin jianzhu (Beijing: Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe, 1988), p. 118.


This grotto-like entrance leads to the second floor of the library at the Garden of the Master of Nets. It appears large enough to enter, but becomes quite confining after only a few steps.


Why would an entrance like this be used in a garden setting?  

Why do you think the entrance to a library was given this kind of external form?

Entrance to second floor of the library, 

Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou

SOURCE:  Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of Jerome Silbergeld, 1983.
One of the most characteristic and outstanding features of the Chinese garden is the artificial mountain built of individual stones, which were cemented together to form complex structures.

These were often placed carefully in the garden compound as focal points of a larger view, or as ideal vantage points themselves.

Why do you think the artificial mountain shown at left was constructed at this particular location?

HINT:  The name of the hall, Barrier of Clouds, refers to this rock wall. From across the pond, the wall is reminiscent of a mountain retreat popular among Daoists. The suggestion is reinforced by the glimpse of a roof beyond the rock barrier, where a scholar could escape.

Artificial mountain in front of Barrier of Clouds Hall, Garden of the Master of Nets

SOURCE:  Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of Jerome Silbergeld, 1981.



Certain types of stones were collected for the melodious sounds they made when struck.

Others, like the one at right, were recognized as "found" art works, completed by nature itself. They are typically displayed within one of a garden's many halls or studies.

Marble slab with naturally occurring landscape, Garden of the Artless Official, Suzhou

SOURCE:  Garden of the Artless Official, Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of Jerome Silbergeld, 1981.

Move on to Water