Grotto-Heavens: Rockeries, Dreamscapes and the Chinese Garden

Ethan Loo

Detail from Shen Zhou and Wen Zhengming, Joint Landscapec.1509 and 1546. Handscroll; ink on paper, 36.8 x 1729.3cm. Acc. no. 1990.54, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1990.

Stone, hard and unfeeling, appears in our contemporary lexicon as a metaphor for the lifeless and the immutable. Yet in the classical gardens and paintings of China, stones were objects of fascination for the élite literati for precisely the opposite reason: the cosmic forces of creation and dissolution they, and the mountains they recall, supposedly embodied. Paired with water and trees in the manner of the archetypal shanshui or mountain-water landscape, whether in the garden or in painting, rock was seen in the context of the ceaseless change that takes place in the ‘myriad things’, in the yin of water acting against the yang of rock. Far from being one side of a static dichotomy, however, rocks and mountains themselves became associated with the action of streams, fogs and mists, piercing and seeping, twisting and folding.

The naming of garden stones ‘cloud rock’, or their shaping into fantastical rockeries and staircases to the heavens, deliberately blurs the boundaries between the solid and the gaseous. Despite the lack of a systematic field of geological study in imperial China, such rocks, with their striking shapes and perforations, typically sedimentary specimens easily shaped by nature and the human hand, were understood to be the product of long spans of time. The Daoist and literary concept of sangtian underscored the impermanence of things, as even seas and mountains were surmised, through folk records and the presence of shell fragments in stone, to have swapped positions through geological time. The traditional aesthetic criteria for scholar’s rocks – thinness, surface folding and porosity – reveal a fascination with transformation made visible, allowing them to take on a significance as objects for philosophical meditation.

Such an expanded geological imagination attached to rocks, too, the properties of the ideal gentleman-scholar, as in the admiration of jade, or else understood them to be sources of fertility and religious illumination when used in the rituals of Gao Mei or in depictions of the Buddhist arhat. These readings draw from a long tradition of veneration of mountains and caves, as sites closest to the ways of the Dao, and in more esoteric traditions as the interior counterparts on earth to the heavens above. Precious ores and minerals were prized ingredients in alchemical quests for transmutation and immortality, whilst the garden and its rockeries played with the theme of miniaturisation and magic, mirroring the liminal possibilities of mountains and caves. The garden manifested itself by the late imperial era as a paradisiacal other world, in keeping with its function as a sphere apart from the rigid structures of bureaucratic or courtly life: in the vein of the utopian literature surrounding the Peach Blossom Spring, these interpretations worked in conjunction with illusory architectural elements such as ‘cave-doors’, ‘leak-windows’ and artificial grottoes to provide portals into other worlds.

Garden-making and touring the landscape, pursuits that were often deeply personal and infused with poetic metaphor, were furthermore processes intertwined with the creation of a vast corpus of literature and painting, where the literati were able to express themselves most freely and undertake introspective ‘armchair sojourns’ into the landscapes of their minds. Such works often proved more influential than the places they depicted, as is the case with famous gardens and landmarks whose value lies more in the depth of reference in the literary and painterly record than in its material authenticity. Investigating an interpretation of stone that highlights its mutability and multiplicity, paralleling the turbulent histories of classical Chinese gardens themselves, uncovers a geological imagination based on an expansive symbiosis between the material real and the subjective cultural imaginary, one that is open and in constant transformation.

DMJournal–Architecture and Representation
No. 1: The Geological Imagination
Edited by Mark Dorrian and Kurt Forster 
ISSN 2753-5010 (Online)
ISBN (forthcoming)

About the author

Ethan Loo works in practice in architecture. He studied at London Metropolitan University and the University of Sheffield, where he has written on interiority and the Chinese garden, and meaning-making in the postcolonial architecture of Macau. His Part I dissertation was awarded a commendation for the 2018 RIBA Presidents Medal.

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