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The art of stone appreciation

Similar to “bonsai”, “suiseki” is also a Japanese term literally mean water stone. Suiseki is a generic term for naturally shaped stone or rock that being collected and appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. The stone appreciation culture started in China more than 1000 years ago during the Tang dynasty (618-907). In China, gongshi (tribute stone), guaishi (strange stone), yashi (elegant stone) or qishi (rare stone) are used interchangeably to represent the natural stone treasured by connoisseur which and the culture of stone appreciation itself. From China, it spread to Japan (known as suiseki), Korea (known as suseok) and subsequently to the West (known as viewing stone or scholar’s rock). The stone appreciation culture is known as scholar’s rock in the West because these stone or rock are usually collected by scholar or literati during the period of Imperial China. During those years, scholar’s rock provides artists, poets and calligraphers with never ending inspiration.

Among all the word that represent the art of stone appreciation, suiseki is by far the most popular term used today, very likely because effort and contribution of Japanese in promoting this art form to worldwide audience.

Size of the stone or rock collected can vary from tiny hand-held stones displayed on a shelf to large rock weighting several tons to decorate a garden. Suiseki displayed indoor are usually small to medium sizes stone moveable by one person, typically mounted on a carved wooden bases, ceramic or metal trays. A Chinese saying has it that, “A garden without stone cannot be beautiful, house without stone wouldn’t be comfortable and a room without stone lacks elegance.”


By the Song dynasty (960-1279), four principal aesthetic criteria—thinness (shou), holes or openness (tou), channels (lou), and wrinkling (zhou) had been identified for judging qualities of scholars' rocks. Although newer criteria based on shape, color, surface pattern or texture and appropriateness of the base has been adopted by modern connoisseur to accommodate wider range of stone types collected today, the four principal aesthetic criteria are still respected and applied particularly on 4 major stone type appreciated by the ancient Chinese - Lingbi, Taihu, Ying and Kun stones.

Today, the art of stone appreciation has gain popularity across the globe. Other than China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, society or club for stone appreciation has been established in all countries in Southeast Asia and most of the countries in Europe and North America. Some society or club were established solely for the art of stone appreciation while many are combined with bonsai society of respective countries – Malaysia Bonsai and Suiseki Society (MBSS) is a typical example.

How to appreciate a stone

Stone is formed through billion years of earth crust activity, coupled with natural erosion by water or wind; an amazing artwork or sculpture can be produced by chance. These stone are not merely collected for appreciation of its beauty but also a spiritual pursuit where quite stone are known to help calming oneself for meditation.

Judging quality of a stone can be a very personal matter, several criteria (as following) can be use as guidance for evaluating quality of a stone but it is not exhaustive.

1. Shape: is the shape of stone suggesting any landscape or object?

Type of landscape stone

  • Distant mountain (imagine you are looking at a mountain range from far)

  • Near view mountain (the mountain is right in front of you)

  • Mountain with waterfall, pool or stream

  • Island (typically displayed on a ceramic or metal tray with sand)

  • Plateau

  • Arch

  • Bridge, etc

Type of object stone

  • Human figure

  • Animals

  • Abstract sculpture

  • Objects like hut, boat, moon, tree, flower, pot etc


2. Pattern or texture: is pattern or texture of the stone suggesting any landscape or object (as above)?


3. Color: some stone are treasured for its color – black, green, yellow, red, etc


4. Material: usually harder stones are treasured mainly due to it durability. Hardness of a stone can be measure in Mohs scale.

Human intervention on stone with cutting or drilling has been documented and known to be acceptable in ancient stone appreciation culture in China. Japanese generally have much stricter rule, all stones must be found in nature and cannot be changed in any way. Although there are some exceptions of man-enhanced stones being treasured due skillful enhancement by artist, it is worth noting that the best stone should be completely sculpted by nature.

When anyone start looking for stones, one must imagine; turn it upside down, left to right and/or right to left to search for a unique or pleasing view. As much as possible, try to collect stone that able to connect and evoke your emotions. What you see may not be what another person may see, that is okay because that is how the stone connecting with you.

Here are some of the award winners from MBSS National Bonsai, Suiseki and Wood Competition and Exhibition in conjunction with 2018 Royal Floria Putrajaya.


Photo 1: Mountainous island displayed on a ceramic tray.



Photo 2: Island with a pool displayed on a ceramic tray.

Photo 3: Plateau and mountain




Photo 4: Natural arch or bridge




Photo 4: Human figure







Photo 5: Human figure

Photo 6: Human figure

Photo 7: Abstract sculpture

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