All posts in “Qing dynasty”

Object of the Week: Scholar’s rock on stand

Wander into a Chinese scholar’s studio at the Seattle Art Museum to find treasures like a masterfully carved brush pot and a tiny cage to house a lucky cricket. This display of Pure Amusements brings together objects and furnishings collected by scholars as a display of learning, a claim to social status, and an inspiration for reflective thinking.

The Qing period Scholar’s rock on stand, a craggy piece of limestone mounted to a carved wooden base, rewards our contemplation, too. Interesting examples of the scholarly collecting impulse, scholars’ rocks were “favored stones that the Chinese literati and their followers displayed and appreciated indoors, in the rarefied atmosphere of their studios.”¹

A very human desire lies at the heart of this tradition. Who, as a kid, does not build their own killer rock collection? In China, too, people have been gathering rocks for a long time. The Chinese practice of decorating gardens with rocks was in place by the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). The specific tradition of the scholar’s rock has been traced back to the Song dynasty (960–1279), and it continued through the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644–1911) periods.

Before the 20th century collectors referred to them in terms that mean “fantastic rocks.” The type of rock, as well as its texture, form, and color, were all important elements for the collector to consider. Different rocks were most treasured at different moments in history, so the look of these rocks has allowed new scholarship to date them, and also to think about changing tastes in collecting over time. Generally, the darker the color, the more prized the scholar’s rock: black and slate grey were at the top. Limestone came first among rock types not only for its look but also for its sound. Due to its density, it would ring like a bell when struck.²

Scholars’ rocks were used in several senses of the word. Functionally, they might serve as brushrests, inkstones, or censers. But their primary function was to inspire. The form of the rock suggested a mountainous landscape, and like a landscape painting, a scholar’s rock acted as a microcosm of the universe—a small piece of an infinite, natural puzzle—an object on which to meditate and to gain cosmic perspective.³ They would be displayed indoors on a desk, on a table or bookshelf, or perhaps on the floor if they were especially large. Traditionally, a scholar displayed his choice rock on a finely carved wooden stand, both to support the irregular form, and to designate the rock as a special item, like a piece of sculpture.

And sculpted they were. Once chosen from nature, scholars’ rocks were frequently carved, weathered, and burnished to suit their owner’s aesthetic. Collecting a scholar’s rock involved both selection—the finest rock would inherently resemble a painting by the powers of nature—and manipulation—as the scholar imprinted their aesthetic onto the rock form by carving or treating it in some way. There is a fascinating give-and-take here, a loop of influence whose beginning and end is hard to identify. As much as the natural forms of rock, and the mountainscapes they represented, informed styles of scholarly painting, the Chinese literati also made natural rock conform to their vision of a painterly landscape, molding it into their idea of beauty.

I’m reminded of David B. Williams’s reflection in Too High and Too Steep, his account of man-made changes to Seattle’s topography: “We shape the land, and the land shapes us.”⁴

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Scholar’s rock on stand, Chinese, Qing period (1644-1912), limestone, 15 ¾ x 8 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.326
¹Robert D. Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks: An Overview,” in Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars’ Rocks. Exh. Cat. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997; 19.
²Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 20.
³Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 21.
⁴David B. Williams, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.
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Object of the Week: Qing Dynasty Robe

In the States, fashion seems like a primarily European product. Italian and French designers command the most respect here. Television and print ads cause us to marvel at how good folks look while just strolling the streets of Paris and Milan.

The Eurocentric focus of today’s fashion culture can make us forget that other cultures of lookin’ really good have existed all over the globe for thousands of years. Traditional China is one of those places where clothing communicates a lot about the wearer.

Qing Dynasty Robe

In this late Qing dynasty (1644-1912) robe at SAM, the wealth and style of the owner shines. The budding flora and curving tendrils of the embroidery blanket the surface of the robe, covering every inch of its fabric with beautiful, precise ornamentation. The sumptuous silk and embroidery in gold-wrapped thread tell us straight away that the owner of the robe was a person of means and importance. This rich purple hue has a visual impact recognized around the world, as in Europe, where, for a long, long time, purple has been the color most associated with royalty.

To be sure, the owner of the robe wanted respect as someone with high social status. History shows us that it’s a very human desire to show off, to draw attention to ourselves, and to set ourselves apart with luxury. That’s nothing new.

Qing Dynasty Robe

Interestingly, clothing in traditional China was also thought to express the internal state of the wearer. Symbols adorning the robe could convey positive traits and blessings of fortune on the person who donned them. Looking at this robe, the large white cuffs feature the shou character—a symbol for the Chinese blessing of longevity— directly at the center. The shou also signals this as a burial robe. Those Qing dynasty elites—always on fleek, even in the grave!

The robe is one of over 900 works that joined SAM’s collection around the 75th anniversary of the museum, an era when the collection grew significantly in size and importance. Come check it out soon at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Robe, late 19th century, silk with gold embroidery, Chinese, Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
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