William & Mary

The Ancient Art of Scholars' Rocks

  • Full House
    Full House  The lecture was attended by over 100 community members, filling every available seat.  
  • The Speaker
    The Speaker  Scholars' Rocks Expert Kemin Hu delivered her lecture with confidence and charisma on Thursday, July 13, 2017.  
  • BNU Students
    BNU Students  Students from BNU attended the lecture.  
  • Opening Remarks
    Opening Remarks  Muscarelle Director Aaron De Graft delivered opening remarks at the lecture on Scholars' Rocks.  
  • Exhibit
    Exhibit  Scholars' Rocks are on display at the Muscarelle Museum of Art.  
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The Sheridan Gallery at the Muscarelle Museum of Art was filled to its capacity on Thursday, July 13th , 2017, when Expert Kemin Hu came to deliver a lecture on her specific area of expertise: Scholars' Rocks.  Her lecture, titled The Ancient Art of Scholars' Rocks, was co-sponsored by the Muscarelle Museum of Art and the William & Mary Confucius Institute.  It was held in conjunction with the Muscarelle's current exhibit The Bones of the Earth: Scholars' Rocks and the Natural World in Chinese Culture, from the Robert Turvine Collection, which will be on display until August 13th, 2017.  The lecture's primary focal points were the history, culture, connoiseurship, and philosophy surrounding scholars' rocks, which all thogether revealed a fascinating, age-old exchange between man and nature.

Scholars' Rocks have a history that dates all the way back to the Song Dynasty, which lasted from the year 960 - 1279.  They were often placed decoratively in Chinese households and gardens, but they were also a key point of contemplation for philosophers.  In this lecture, Hu pointed out that, between images of rolling clouds to majestic mountain ranges, nature has always been presented as a powerful force in Chinese artwork.  Scholars' rocks are simply an extension of that.  She personified nature as the "sculptor" of these stones.  In contemplating nature's own works of art, ancient philosophers were essentially communicating with a powerful, divine force on a close,  personal level.

An interesting example of this communication was brought up with a poem by renowned Tang Dynasty Poet Bai Juyi:

I turn to Twin Peak Stones asking 

If they would accompany me,

An old man.

The stones, though unable to speak,

Promised to remain my faithful friends.

This poem presents the stones not only as unique works of nature to contemplate, but also as "friends."  This further emphasizes the power of Scholars' Rocks; they were so captivating that they could even be thought of as companions.  Between nature's artistic touch and the stones' unique shapes, Scholars' Rocks were able to take on a life of their own.

Another interesting feature of Scholars' Rocks is that stones which contained a lot of holes and negative space were often used with incense.  With incense burners placed beneath the stone, smoke could rise through the its holes and crevices, creating a fragrant and picturesque scene.

Hu also presented Scholars' Rocks as fuel for creative thought.  Because no two rocks are te same, observers can look at the stones and see virtually any shape.  After all, there is no way to directly ask nature its intentions behind the piece!  As such, when people say that a stone looks like a beautiful woman or a majestic lion, they are engaging in an age-old discussion with nature about its artwork.  The speaker went on to compare the stones to the distinctive architecture at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in that both are meant to stimulate thought in the viewer.

At the end of the lecture, Hu not only delved into the locations worldwide where Scholars' Rocks have been prominently displayed in art exhibitions, but also discussed her own personal connection with the stones.  Her career as a connoisseur of Scholars' Rocks actually follows in the footsteps of her father, who worked to collect them even in some of the more turbulant periods in Twentieth-Century China.  She stated that she was driven to write her first book on Scholars' Rocks after growing up with them, and became even more invested and fascinated with them after writing the book.

Kemin Hu's lecture was very well-received.  She delivered her lecture with both poise and charisma, captivating the audience. Additionally, the lecture attracted enough people to not only fill every seat in the Sheridan Gallery, but also received nearly 300 views when it was broadcast on Facebook Live.  The lecture was an amazing success, allowing hundreds to gain an appreciation for Scholars Rocks and their role in Chinese culture.