Free Discussions on Classic Shangshi

Classic shangshi versus ancient shangshi

Classic shangshi (the term“shangshi”usually used by Westerners, is the equivalent of the viewing stone for appreciation.—Translator`s note) means the viewing stone that is structurally featured by SHOU, LOU, ZHOU, TOU and takes abstract form as its predominant mode of expression. Classic shangshi refers to a kind of style and has nothing to do with age determination or rock type. In other words, Taihu rock, Lingbi rock and Ying stone should not be called by a joint name of “classic shangshi”, as classic shangshi represents only a part of these rock types. Among contemporary rock types, there is also shangshi with the classic style, such as Mo (black) stone form Guangxi and Fengli stone from Xinjiang and lnner Monglia.

Ancient shangshi, however, refers to age classification. Traditionally, stones colleted before the end of the Qing dynasty are called “ancient shangshi”. Ancient shangshi differs from classic shangshi in that the former has diversified characteristics. Certain clues to this could be discerned from Yunlin Stone Catalogue printed in the Song dynasty and from those ancient stone collections still preserved today. That is to say that ancient shangshi is not necessarily classic while classic shangshi is not unnecessarily ancient, either. Classic shangshi represent the traditional style or fashion.

The issue now involves the difficulty of ancient shangshi judgment as most of such stones do not have any (visualized) record handed down from past generations or any related objects from archeological excavation as supportive evidence of their age. Scientific instruments can only measure the natural age of such shangshi, rather than determine its age of collection. Besides, it is a commonplace that the base of ancient shangshi does not match the period of its collection, as many of ancient shangshi collections today do not have old wooden bases, let alone their original ones in ancient times. Ancient people used not to make bases for their shangshi collections, a practice related to their way of appreciantion. Even if an ancient stone has an old base, it is often difficult to judge whether such base is the original one. So it is often problematic to infer the first yerars of collection of a stone on the basis of the age of the wooden base.

Ancient shangshi used to be viewed as antique instead of the fantastic stone itself. JiCheng, famous landscape artist in Ming dynasty, expressed in Craft of Gardens his objection to the trend of “seeking false reputation by forging old-looking stones”. To him, this practice was meant for antique collection, not for stone collection. Obviously, there was a clear distinction between antique collection and stone collection among connoisseurs back then. Even today, collectors of ancient shangshi(including classic shangshi) are mostly found in the stone appreciation. In the artwork collection community, classic shangshi has already shown itself in oriental and occidental museums and auction exhibitions. It is usually classified an antique collectible rather than shanshi itself.

Just because of the difficulty in judging ancient shangshi, many collectors and even collector societies and auction firms often confuse modern shangshi (referring to forged old stones) with ancient shangshi, which is what Rosenblum, famous American collector of Chinese Scholars` Rocks, used to do. At present, museums and auction firms in Europe and America pay little attention to the age of classis shangshi (“Scholars` Rocks”), taking such stones as artworks that are not antiques but are more valued than antiques.

Classic shangshi versus contemporary shangshi

Contemporary shangshi refers to contemporary mainstream stone types with the fine water-scouring of Hongshui River, Guangxi, as the representative. It also includes foreign stone types with suiseki of Japan as the representative. Despite the fact that the stone appreciation culture originated in ancient china, the Japanse suiseki culture has evolved under the influence of ancient Chinese stone appreciation culture but its content and ways of expression are divorced from those of classic shangshi, Suiseki stresses three elements—material, color and shape, with particular emphasis on the beauty of connotation in material, beauty of loneliness in color, formal beauty of shape, and beauty of stability in solid mass. Contemporary shangshi follows this direction, emphasizing the beauty of connotation in material and the formal beauty of shape while showing greater preference to richness of color and visualization of theme. These emphases do not fit into classic shangshi.

Originating in 1980s and 1990s, contemporary shangshi offers three clues to its sudden prevalence. First, collection and appreciation of Yellow Wax stone and Raining Flower pebble, two of ancient shangshi types that are well in accord with modern aesthetic tendency, have been carried forward and developed into today; second, bonsai artists have discovered the fascination of shangshi in the process of preparing landscape bonsai; and third, the Japanese suiseki culture has made its influence felt. Such clues do not have any direct relationship with classic shangshi, though. And this may lead to an interesting question: could ancient Chinese understand and appreciate contemporary shangshi? The answer is affirmative. An investigation of diversity of ancient shangshi (particularly the diversity in Ming and Qing dynasties when there emerged the stone appreciation theory with more emphasis on material and color, as shown in the popularity of both Yellow Wax stone and malachite) would easily make one reach this conclusion. However, the predominant shangshi type in contemporary time could, at best, be seen by ancient collectors as a choice rather than the mainstream.

It is worth pointing out that great differences exist between ancient and contemporary shangshi in terms of material and color when the two concepts: the material of ancient shangshi is mostly carbonatite while that of contemporary shangshi is mostly silicolite. In other words, classic shangshi does not place much emphasis on material or quality, as form determines content. On the contrary, contemporary shangshi has introduced the science of geology into stone appreciation and therefore gives more attention to material, as content determines form. Classic shangshi preferred flat and dull color, consistent with the viewpoint of Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching (“The five colors confuse the eyes”) and also with the traditional introspective personality of intellectuals. Contemporary shangshi, however, favors bright colors, which id consistent with the colorful life of contemporary people and their extroversive personality. So the two styles are apparently of one accord but divided in heart.

Irrelevant to classic shangshi, contemporary shangshi is an “art of discovery”, meaning that the viewer tends to search for the shape or pattern of a fantastic stone. In fact, the landscape or image reflected in the stone cannot be isolated from objective existence in the real world. Even if it is of an abstract category, such landscape or image usually goes to modern abstract art (painting or sculpture) for inspiration. The denomination of Guangxi Moore Stone is a good example. In a sense, the abstract subject matter like that expressed in a Moore stone also represents an art of discovery. The abstract subject matter in classic shangshi is different an it neither has any corresponding object in real life nor resembles any art.

When it comes to practical use of stone to man, we emphasize that stone is a substance in the first place, whether as artifact or as material. By contrast, classic shangshi featuring SHOU.LOU,ZHOU,TOU are indeed of no practical use. Moreover, classic shangshi is mostly carbonatite and lacks hard, dense material and hence is prone to efflorescence. Explanatory notes to such “useless use” (that is, turning uselessness into pure appreciation) in classic shangshi could be found in the highly treasured fragments of Lao Tzu`s literary work.

In chapter 41 of Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu said that “the greatest vessel takes the least time to finish,” meaning that it was desirable that the best vessel needed no finishing. This accords with Lao Tzu`s philosophy as expressed in such simple dialectic ideas that nothing should be done that goes against nature, one should let things take their natural courses and things would develop in the opposite direction when pushed too far. Accordingly, if one viewed classic shangshi as a “great vessel”, its “useless use” and lack of beauty (old and ugly appearance) would in the end turn into some greater use: pure appreciation by the collector. This is also an alienation and evolution of the practical use of stone, serving as the best note to the idea that “the greatest vessel takes the beast time to finish.”

Classic shangshi could neither be made into any vessel nor become any useful material, with the only exception of Lingbi chime stone (a genre of Lingbi rock). As it was capable of emitting a bell-like ring when struck, it was used to make Qing, an ancient Chinese percussion. Therefore it was treated otherwise and listed as the most favored for the scholar`s studio in Yunlin Stone Catalogue in the Song dynasty. Actually just because of this chime stone`s practicality, Lingbi rock raised its position among many other rock types. But in this case, Lingbi chime stone lies between “usefulness” and “uselessness”, differing from any other classic shangshi.

Decline and rebirth of classic shangshi

There appeared a clear faultage in the stone appreciation culture in modern China, as evidenced by a sharp drop of stone collector`s population. The underlying cause of this phenomenon is that classic shangshi, as the main body of shangshi, ceased to hold continuing appeal to collectors while the new-style contemporary shangshi had yet to be discovered and popularized. For instance, Zhao Ruzhen included a special chapter, “Famous Stones”, in his famous Guide of Chinese Antiques published in 1942, mentioning that “the lingering charm [of shangshi]is yet to be unveiled” and “stone fans are rare nowadays”. This indicates that the fashion of stone collection was indeed at a low ebb. According to this book, there were only five types of “famous stones available in Beijing” back then: Dali marble, Taihu rock, Ying stone, Raining Flower pebble and malachite. Surprisingly enough, Lingbi rock was not among them. The decline of classic shangshi during that period is obviously an indisputable fact.

It is worth noticing that where a strong collector base of Dail marble and Raining Flower pebble, which almost became mainstream types then. Zhang Lunyuan, famous stone collector and connoisseur, wrote about this in his works, Wanshizhai Dali Stone Catalogue and Wanshizhai Lingyan Stone Catalogue. Although there were records of such stones in ancient time, they did not fall into the scope of classic shangshi. There was apparently a change of taste in stone collection. During this period, the new generation of intellectuals that had accepted Western scientific knowledge and democratic ideas made the most achievements and innovations in carrying forward and updating the stone appreciation tradition of China. They began to introduce scientific ideas into stone collection. For example, Zhang hongzhao publish in 1918 shiya (Lapidarium Sinicum: a study of the rocks, fossils, and minerals an known in Chinese Literature ) and for the first time put scientific connotations into traditional stone appreciation culture systematically. He described with scientific accuracy the causes of formation of chrysanthemum stone and pine-forest stone, turning traditionally perceptual zed stones into rationalized ones: that is, he explained both how and why the stones were so. In summing up judgment criteria for Lingyan stone (Raining Flower pebble), Zhang maintained that “the fine features in shape, material, color and texture should become the starting point for study of Lingyan stone” and “material is then main body with utmost importance.” He believed that content should determine form, which is very close to contemporary aesthetics of stone collection.

Although classic shangshi is getting more and more distant from us, its special cultural meaning and historical accumulation are self-evident. Even when contemporary shangshi holds the dominant position today, classic shangshi as a particular style is still the main object of expression of the stone appreciation theme by the modern art.

Take Zhan Wang, a famous sculptor in Beijing, for example. He devotes a lot of time to study of fantastic stones all the year round. Since 1995, he has been doing experiments on duplicating of “rockery” series (mainly classic Taihu rock) by using stainless steel (Titanium coated) materials to forge all kinds of rockeries. By taking meticulous care of details, including each vein, each hollow, each curve, and through the processes of welding and polishing, he manages to transform the originally rock-quality forms into “conceptual sculptures” with bright luster of modern metals. One may say that such rockeries give new life to classic shangshi with the aid of modern materials.

Due to the mirror-like effect of stainless steel, the silhouette of the sculpted work itself becomes somewhat blurred and all kinds of background colors are reflected, giving rise to associations of illusory dreamland. The ever-changing refractions of bright stainless steel impress us with their blankness and emptiness, conveying a strong symbolic message. Many of such forged works are used as decorative artworks in urban areas and some are colleted by art museums worldwide. Rockeries used to play a major role in classic gardens. Today in the jungle of reinforced concrete, they have relocated their position with the carrier of cold and changeful stainless steel sculptures. They will give us new surprises in the time to come.

Winter Issue 2006,4

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