Native South Korean Stones (Seen from the West)
The native Korean stones accompanying this essay are part of a ”Suseok” collection assembled over 40 years and brought to the US in 1988 by Mr. Choi Sang Ok, a retired South Korean diplomat. These seven stones encapsulate recent practice in Korean stone appreciation, its evolved traditions and styles.
Dissemination of culture and high arts in ancient East Asia historically flowed from China into Korea, and then across the East Sea to Japan.
Buddhism, for example, followed this path to Japan in the 4th century; hitchhiking with Baekche Korean aristocracy fleeing the depredations of the less culturally advanced but more powerful Korean kingdoms of Koguryo and Shilla.
Baekche and Japan thus established relations and trade, and even a tacit alliance in the southern-most part of the Korean Peninsula, then a hodgepodge of Kaya chiefdoms adjacent to the East Sea, having intermittent contact with the Japanese Archipelago.
The Samguk Sagi, Korea's compiled histories of its Three Kingdoms (divided by lineage, not language), records many missions invited to the Archipelago bearing emissaries who were Masters of classical arts—Dance, Music, Gardens, and including instructors in Buddhism—that were eagerly awaited and adopted by the native Japanese aristocracy. Each of Korea's Three Kingdoms compiled histories in the chronicle format that was standard for official histories in East Asia. The Baekche annals of Samguk Sagi were compiled from 1075 to 1151.
Certainly, foundations of formalized stone appreciation would have been part of this syllabus of classic arts. Another example: the domed burial mounds of early Japanese rulers followed a Korean model.
In fact, the sizeable migration of Baekche nobles to Japan led the later Japanese national history, Nihon Shoki, to count its genealogical generations back to a Baekche Korean Prince. Indeed, Kudara (the Japanese pronunciation of his Korean name) was a capitol city in early Japan of that era.
In 612 AD, according to the Samguk Sagi, Shilla King Mu sent an emissary with a gift of Korean stones to the Japanese Court. Stone aficionado No Ja Kong, (circa 678) is said to have personally carried his own stones to Japan.
Little is known of Korean stone appreciation and the style of that ancient time. Likely it reflected the prevailing Chinese influence: ”Kwaesuk” (strange/weird stones) which emphasized upright monoliths of extreme overall surface texture and shape, symbolic of longevity and the struggle against the elements.
In fact, it is common for Koreans to honor Kwaesuk by substituting the word longevity (su) for its homonym water (su) when writing the word suseok.
Song Chinese artist Mi Fu (1056-1137) codified four characteristics he thought most important in a prized stone (in Korean translation): tou (holes), joon (wrinkles), su (refined elegance), soo (slender shape). Koreans have since admired and emulated his example, and elaborated upon this repertoire of animating attributes, especially prizing the transformative though evanescent effects of water.
One must remember that the Korean race was born in a stony mountain cave. Dangun (circa 2333 BC), father of their race, was spawn of a celestial Son of Heaven come to Earth and a Bear Woman.
Mountains and stone have been Korean cradle, meat and calling for over 5000 years. Virtually every historic structure is built upon a bed of cleverly dry-stacked stones, and to this day most every Korean kitchen makes frequent use of heavy stone stewing bowls. ‘Health water’ is sipped by tourists as it flows out of bedrock at ancient temples.
Japanese stone appreciation followed a somewhat different path and, since the end of WWII, the modern suiseki model has reverberated most strongly through Korean collecting.
This is not to say, however, that suiseki influence has brought entirely 'new' elements to Korean stone appreciation. Cho Myung Ho (1807-1887), a prolific poet and writer, coined the term "San Su Kyung Suk" (mountain water scenery stone) for his own collection and he sprayed water on his stones to enhance their effect.
Such is a common sight in mountainous Korea, with its many deep and discrete valleys and misty coast which Chinese Emperors dubbed the “Land of Morning Freshness” (or “Calm”, for the sun rises first over its peaceful peninsula).
Native flower stones are also a Korean favorite and several varieties exist, polished as do the Japanese. According to some, under the moral strictures of Neo-Confucian thrall, flowers were one of few acceptable artistic motifs in Korea. A sunflower stone, for example, was known as “Loyal Subject” for always turning its face to the sun.
In fact, a hallmark of Korean stone appreciation seems not solely to be the stone itself, but the collector's spontaneous and passionate personal interaction with his stone.
And while he would not likely alter the stone itself—integrity is so important that a novice field collector is taught to drop his new prize to test its strength—he will often embellish his prize with a fancy carved base that further elucidates the vision he finds therein, such as feet for a toad-form cobble, or stairs for a “temple”. Understated elegance is not his goal, but celebration.
Poet Yoon Sun Do (1587-1671) explains in his poem “O U GA” (My Five Close Friends):
Historically, stone towers are symbols of peace, balance, and longevity, and peninsular Korea is full of “pillars”: arches and sea stacks along its endless coastline and many islands; mountaintop memorials erected by kings; famous abbots' grave-markers; and delicate stone pagodas gracing temple sites.
And even today, this reverence lives on in the small piles of pebbles constructed daily by prayerful tourists along approaches to holy sites.
Outside the Landscape tradition, animated karst limestone remnants, called Chumto, are dug up out of certain alkaline soils. The implied motion of this in-the-round figure might be seen by a Korean as a traditional solo performer dancing with an enchanted scarf—the Salpuri.
In sum, the Korean collector is a lover of the feeling in stone appreciation. Individual spiritual transport is launched by, and into, Mother Nature's own time-machine creations. Here cultivation leads to flight, and for a moment, heart’s true freedom!
The first post-war President of South Korea, Harvard/Princeton-educated Dr. Syngman Rhee, wrote of the potential and personal challenge to be found in traditional Korean stone appreciation: