Evidence of the Use of Chinese Stones in Japan during the Meiji (1866-1925).

There is an ongoing debate about the influence of Chinese stone appreciation culture on comparable Japanese practices. This article presents evidence of the use of Chinese stones as decoration in the Japanese Sencha tea ceremony and their use in early stone exhibitions in Japan. Many leaders in Japanese stone appreciation agree that the practice originated in China and was introduced to Japan where it was modified accordingly. Keiji Murata, a key figure in the popularization of suiseki in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, stated in his 1962 book Modern Suiseki Illustrated that “suiseki is a charming hobby to appreciate beauty of the nature which the learned in Japan has created by influence of Chinese culture.”

Covello and Yoshimura wrote in their 1984 book that “the art of suiseki is believed to have originated some 2,000 years ago in China…. The Japanese adapted the art to their own tastes and have practiced it to this day.” Then in 2005, Japanese specialist Kin’ichi Yoshimura, Suiseki, An Art Created by Nature, wrote that “The culture of stone appreciation was introduced into Japan from China and it adapted and evolved in Japan.” There are earlier and later references to the use of usual decorative stones in Japanese culture than this period of Japanese history. The late Meiji was a period of significant interest of suiseki in Japan. Four examples of the use of Chinese stones in Japan during this time are documented in following publications.

An illustrated, two-volume catalog, Juraku-kai, of a 1903 exhibition of bonsai and stones in a restaurant in Tokyo clearly shows the use of some Chinese stones in tokonoma displays. At least three Chinese stones are referenced in the text and then illustrated. Two are identified as Chinese Lingbi stones, while a third stone is not identified as to the type of stone, only the country of origin.

The Sencha Ceremony is another important Meiji book that illustrates this use of Chinese stones. The use of tea leaves defines the sencha tea ceremony, while macha tea ceremony uses powdered green tea. Both forms of the tea ceremony originated in China; however, today, the macha form is more widely used in Japan than in China. A formal procedure is used in a tea house for the tea ceremony. Guests are inviting into a small receiving room in preparation for the tea. This room is decorated with select objects for guests to view and help develop the proper frame of mind before drinking tea. Scrolls, stones, flower arrangements, and small accessory items are among the decorative pieces.The Sencha Ceremony consists of two volumes, the first published in 1909 followed by the second volume in 1910. The second volume focuses on display—text and illustrations--about how to properly display and decorate the receiving room in a tea house. Several of the illustrations of correctly displayed receiving rooms include the use of Chinese stones. This is significant considering the importance of the tea ceremony in Japanese culture.

The third example is the Meiji 44 (1909) book Collection of Bonsai and Unique Stones by Shunmu Ebara. He describes and illustrates the use of a Chinese Lingbi stone in this volume. Marushima, in his valuable reference Japanese History of Stone Appreciation (1992), described an exhibition in a Kyoto club of Chinese and Japanese stones in 1910.

These four volumes provide clear evidence that Chinese stones were collected and sufficiently valued to be used in exhibitions of stones and as decorative items in formal receiving rooms for the Sencha tea ceremony. Later, Chinese stones lost their appeal as Japanese stone enthusiasts adopted this art form to the use of Japanese stones and Japanese cultural preferences. Certain Chinese stones continued to be held in high esteem, particularly older stones that were brought to Japan by monks during the Edo period.

(Text and photographs copyrighted by VSANA).


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