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The art of the Viewing Stone, a short introduction.


For the past two thousand years the appreciation of natural stones that look like objects, mountains , animals, boats and landscapes have been part of the ancient cultures of China, Korea and Japan. In the west the hobby has been steadily growing through some leading collectors showing their own stones in major exhibitions and museums



Imagine holding an entire mountain range in one hand? Used in meditation to allow the mind to wander for a few moments, the art of Susieki and Gongshi is indeed become very popular in the United Kingdom as well as around the world. Gongshi are Chinese Scholars stones because these were often seen in the collections of teachers and scholars and used as an aid to meditation, they are becoming a popular hobby once more in China as the country undergoes a renaissance in discovery of its art history once again.


In the main, these are generally abstract in shape, sometimes called Scholars Stones, they were often used as a focussing conduit for meditation. In many Chinese Homes today you may find such a stone, be it small or extremely large and standing on a equally large beautifully carved stand or Stone plinth. Many things can be seen in the same stone by different people. Within this type of viewing stone there are many sub sections that describe the styles. Like Suiseki.


Susieki however, are viewing stones that have originated as an art expression in Japan.. Some Scholars Stones and Susieki can change hands for a few pounds or  many thousands of pounds while there are some exquisite Suiseki that have been sold in excess of one million dollars and even been exchanged for castles and lands.. Heady stuff for a stone.

The art of the Viewing Stone

Suiseki as its known in Japan, North America and Europe, has many other names in the far east. Known in China as Gongshi-Fantastic Rock shapes and in Korea as Long life rocks, Indonesia as Suisok, have a long association with Bonsai and Penjing.


Kemin Hu quoted in her excellent work The Spirit of Gongshi the following poem written by the great Tang dynasty poet, Bai Juyi  who lived from 722 -846 AD. It is one of the earliest mentions of why a person loves the imagery in a rock.

“Then I turned towards my two rocks asking

if they would stay with me when I am old.

They could not speak yet seemed to say

that they would remain my faithful friends”.


Bai Juyi lived in Suzhou near Taihu where many famous rocks come from. The lakes in this area known as Jiangsu Province (See section on Singapore Penjing) and the rocks are deeply worn and eroded Limestone rocks.

The ultimate collectors?

Oda Nobunaga (1534 -1582) overthrew the Ashikaga shogunate, was known to be an enthusiastic collector of both Zen-inspired garden stones and miniature landscape stones. In one incident, he is said to have sent a miniature landscape stone, named "Eternal Pine Mountain" together with a fine tea bowl, in exchange for the Ishiyama fortress

(Currently the site of Osaka castle) in 1850.


This is an early display I mounted at the Bristol Bonsai Show nearly 20 years ago.

Stone Collections:

Collections of Stones can be seen in many places these days. Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a particularly good collection started nearly ninety years ago. A fine large Gongshi stone stands outside the Museum. The Penjing and Suiseki Pavilion in Washington DC also includes the National Bonsai Collection, The Golden State Bonsai Collection in San Francisco, The Penjing and Bonsai Exhibit in Montreal Botanic Gardens, and many more places in the West. China has some excellent Gongshi stone collections and include the Imperial Garden and Summer Palace in Beijing, Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai,  Zhan Garden in Nanjing, Tinglin Park in Kunshan, Jiangnan Famous Stone Garden in Hangzhou,  Liuyuan Garden in Suzhou, The Stubborn Rock House in the Guqi Gardens in Shanghai. Many more collections can be found on the Internet. There is a very nice small collection in the Singapore Chinese Gardens


A display of American Suiseki at the National Arboretum in Washington

Bonsai, Penjing and viewing stones, Suiseki or Gongshi, are inextricably linked. In the history of Bonsai and Penjing I mentioned that the appreciation of stone landscapes started in China and Korea nearly two thousand years ago. This was part of the culture of appreciation of miniature trees with our without stones. It evolved into a general appreciation of the stones themselves and the distinct Chinese, South East Asian, Japanese and appreciation of different kinds of images recognized in stone. The European and North American interest took their own paths

This is a collected Sprit










Stone from New Zealand. It is approximately 3 metres tall.

The Appreciation of Suiseki:

Suiseki are small stones that have naturally weathered into aesthetically pleasing shapes. Many Suiseki suggest mountains, islands and waterfalls. Others resemble human or animal figures, or are prized for their colourful or abstract textures. Collected in the wild, on mountains and in streambeds, and then displayed in a natural state, these stones are objects of great beauty. They are also sophisticated tools for inner reflection that stir in all who see them an appreciation for the awesome power of the universe. The Japanese have gathered Suiseki for many centuries but the art has only recently become popular in the west especially amongst Bonsai Growers


One of my first Suiseki was this huge petrified wood that I found near Loch Lomond in Scotland in 1975. I had a stone mason create a slate base which he cut to match the shape of the stones base. (This was a very hard job) I still have this wonderful landscape Suiseki.

Part of sales display in Belgium in 2013






















Inspiration for Suiseki can be landscapes like this in Kweilin-China (©Brian Gunther)

Suiseki are dark in colour with an elegant patina symbolising the timelessness of the art. Their pristine condition, universal appeal and suggestiveness contribute to the appreciation of Suiseki as works of art. The beauty and evocative powers of Suiseki enable viewers to stimulate their own memories of past events and places; to create emotional connections and to serve as a medium for relaxation. For some collectors the quest for Suiseki is akin to a spiritual or mystical experience.



Suiseki on stands, Arco, Noelanders and other events


Figure Suiseki: I found this in Alaska. It is basalt with quartz.
It looked like an Chubby Inuit woman with her seal fur edged winter coat holding
her hand up to her mouth.
I call it Oops!
As if the woman has just missed her step and is falling into the water.

I asked Dan Barton, one of the UK’s famous Bonsai Master and Potter,
to create this Suiban with a glass interior to look like ice.

HuangShan Yellow Mountain Anhui Province China-©Craig Coussins

The aesthetics of Suiseki:

The most important variable in the appreciation of Suiseki is that of their beauty. Their attractiveness comes about from a grouping of elements unique to the natural world that have come together, unmodified, in a manner deemed beautiful by the standards of art. Suiseki imitate nature in their content, proportion, shape, colour and texture. The better a Suiseki’s intrinsic qualities the more powerful its evocative strength and beauty.

Balance Rocks, Arches National Park-Utah-©Craig Coussins

A Suiseki is millions of years old. It has arrived at its present shape through the inexorable forces of nature. Thus, captured in its static form are the dynamics of time, heat, cold and weathering. Ironically the more eroded and battered the stone, the longer it has been engaged by the elements and the more reassured to becomes as an object of artistic appreciation.


Suiseki may be viewed quite simply. In its basic acceptance as a pretty stone with a nice shape or it may be viewed at the various levels of complexity that embrace art, philosophy or mineralogy. Or it can serve as a metaphor for the connection between ones private world and the universe. These levels of enjoyment and appreciation make Suiseki not merely an art form but a means by which filed collectors can achieve personal satisfaction and peace.

Displaying a Suiseki

A suiseki is a relatively simple object to display. On a small table or suitable thin slab of wood. The background can be dressed with a Scroll depicting the landscape from which the stone originated, beach, mountain or forest. The accent to offset the stone can be a small figure, animal or object that suggest the form of the stone or something that harmonises with the stone itself.

Kyoto Bonsai and Suiseki Show-©Craig Coussins

Dai and Daiza

Some Susieki are displayed on Tables or Dai. The stand for the stone itself is called a Daiza. Daizas are the handmade wood stands carved specially for each stone., Suiseki can also be displayed in ceramic trays called Suibans , or even bronze which are called Dhobans. These trays, in turn, are displayed on Dai (tables)

Kunio Kobayashi Museum Tokyo-©Craig Coussins

Collecting Suiseki:

There are a several techniques a collector can use to increase the chance of finding good quality material suitable for Suiseki. Careful preparation leads to successful collecting and good sites with potential stone and mineral availability. There is more than luck and preparation involved here, in my opinion. The coming together of a stone and field collector on a given day is indeed akin to a spiritual experience.


The Japanese call the collecting site the ‘kawa dojo’ or roughly translated, ‘the classroom of the riverbank’ As they study the endless sea of rocks before them, field collectors are able to discover potential Suiseki by matching them against the mental images of natural landscapes and quality stones that they have built  in their own collections over the years.


Big Head-Collected in Scotland


The fun for me is to find flat base stones that convey the impression of the landscape I can understand and to have an equally nice view from the back and even the sides. This reflects my philosophy in Bonsai where I teach that you do not just have a front but also have a Back, Sides and Front. This is especially difficult with Suiseki but in these examples most are very nice viewed from all sides


After many years of collecting, I have but one bit of advice. . You can be overwhelmed with seeing so many stones on a shore or riverbank. Not all will be a Suiseki but I have found the best technique is to take one square metre and study that area carefully. Only one square metre at a time. Otherwise, you will wander without purpose and become blinded by the amount. To paraphrase: essentially, you will not see the Suiseki for the stones.


An amazing vision of the mountain scree between the peaks and wide waterfall. (Murphys Stone)


The art of Suiseki begins with the collection of stones in nature and culminates in a new sense of beauty and in an emotional and spiritual relationship between the field collector and the stone. The charm of Suiseki and its attraction as hobby and way of life lies in its elegant simplicity; a stone in its natural state is admired for its unique shape, colour and mineral properties, or for the way it provokes memories of events and times past. A well-proportioned Suiseki satisfies the eye yet inspires awe, through the process of scaling; it reproduces a famous mountain or island in miniature. A Suiseki can be treasured as a spiritual and philosophical construct, metaphors in stone that helps us connect with and understand those things we value in life. As mentioned, a Suiseki can act as a focussing conduit to help you meditate.

Images from a recent Suiseki exhibition in Salzburg 2015

I collected this large Gongshi in Anhui Province, China.
Suiseki from Vancouver Island Canada. A wolf head shaped arch stone from Australia

The first five Suiseki come from Australia and the next group from South Africa.

Amazing Suiseki from China,

I collected this unusual volcanic shaped wave stone in Loch Morar, Scotland.
It looked like an old woman on a chair. Hence the miniature wooden figure in front


The middle group are from Poland, Czech Republic and Tatra Mountains

Most of these very large Suiseki come from California


Mainly Scotland and Wales-great collecting sites if you know where to go


Extremely Rare Kika-seki and Kika Biseki from Japan. Chrysanthemum Suiseki