How rocks collected for their aesthetic value contributed to the collapse of a Chinese Empire
My third grader returned from a Girl Scout camping trip this weekend with stories, craft projects, and of course, a new rock. This particular rock was broken into a few pieces that interlocked together, making it a “puzzle” rock, which was interesting, but still a five-pound hunk of geology she doesn’t really have space for in her room. I asked if she had any idea what kind of rock it was, guessing it was some kind of sandstone maybe? The only classification that mattered to my daughter was that it was an interesting rock. It was pretty. It was a rock that caught her eye. My inner nerd sighed, but the art student in me is fine with this. Aesthetics can be important. They can move us to action or to calm serenity. In some cases, things do get out of hand though, like that time when rock collecting helped bring down a 12th-century emperor in China.
From contemplation to craze
Like my third grader’s current rock collection, this story started much more innocently. In 826 AD, Bai Juyi, a regional administrator and poet, was captivated by a pair of heavily weathered rocks near a lake. They were gnarled and craggy, standing upright in the ground, clearly displaying ages of rough treatment by the elements. Bai Juyi took them home, but more importantly wrote a poem about them, transforming them from a personal aesthetic experience into a anchors for a national movement. Other scholars were drawn to his observations about how the rocks marked the power of nature, contrasted the transience of human lives, and inspired quiet, Taoist contemplation.
Naturally, all these ideas about enjoying the stoic beauty of well-worn stones inspired a bit of a fad. Bai Juyi noted the growing fascination, and compared his lithomania to an addiction, suggesting that his compatriots limit their daily rock meditations to a few hours a day. People codified the virtues of rocks, noting their shou, zhou, lou, and tou— their upright stature, furrowed textures, carved channels and deep perforations that allowed air and light to pass through them. Rocks were featured in paintings, often dwarfing any human subjects that happened to be included. So-called “spirit stones” became a fixture of well-educated households, and the civil servants and artists of the time made a point to appreciate carefully selected rocks in terms we usually associate with paintings or poetry. Some stones could fit on a table, but more ambitious collectors stared acquiring pieces of twisted limestone large enough to tower over visitors.
This is where things get complicated. I can insist that my daughter only collect rocks she’s willing to carry on her own, but when an Emperor is the one doing the collecting, it’s hard for anyone to say no. In the 12th century, the Emperor Huizong was a noted artist quite obsessed with building up his rock garden. Details seem to vary depending on the source, with some accounts mentioning bridges being dismantled to allow a large stone to be transported down a river, for instance, but everyone agrees that the Huizong’s collection stressed the Northern Song Empire’s resources. When invaders came calling in 1125 AD, the empire had sunk so many resources into Huizong’s aesthetic interests that it couldn’t properly defend its borders. Sadly, the carefully tended garden did not survive either, sadly undermining the persistence symbolized by the rocks’ themselves.
Thankfully, not all rock collections have spiraled out of control like this. When Chinese lithomania arrived in 15th-century Japan, it was transformed. Rather than celebrating rough, tortured shapes, Japan was enamored with smoother rocks with more gentle silhouettes. These stones were still collected, but were displayed in sand, water or gravel to imitate the look of a miniature mountain. Eventually, Zen Buddhist monks started raking the gravel around stones to reflect the movement of wind and water, but they avoided the frantic collecting that brought down the Northern Song Empire.
As long as aesthetics drive my daughter’s interest in rocks, this second model seems like an easier path to follow. I just worry about the day she requests a large amount of gravel to cover her floor.