"Rocks and the Men Who Love Them" -- Susukida Kyûkin

posted Monday, May 23, 2005


It is said that once a man has learned to appreciate everything else, he discovers the beauty of rocks. Tu Qinwu prized many things, but rocks were what he loved most. It is said that he spent his whole life collecting thirty-six unusual rocks, each corresponding to one of the Thirty-Six Peaks of Wuyi Mountain and bearing an appropriate name, and he would show these to all his visitors.

Zheng Banqiao, too, liked to paint rocks, but all of those rocks were ugly -- so much so that the most extreme examples shocked those who saw them. But when we also consider Dongpo's assertion that "Rocks are both refined and ugly", we can see that painting the ugliness of a beloved rock was Zheng Banqiao's way of expressing his love.

Mi Yuanzhang, that celebrated calligrapher of the Song era, loved rocks more than anyone else. When he became a prefectural governer in Huainan, he was overjoyed to find a large, unusual rock of an ugly shape in the office garden, and quickly smoothed his clothing and bowed to it. Then, speaking to it as he would a member of his own family, he said, "My brother. Meeting you is a happiness above all others."

His superiors heard about this rather eccentric behavior, and Yuanzhang was eventually fired, but the fact that he could not stop himself from calling the rock "brother" with such feeling allows us, perhaps, to understand the depth of his affection for rocks.

Lingbi is famous for the peculiar rocks it produces, and it happened that at one time Mi Yuanzhang held an official position in a district not very far away. Great lover of rocks that he was, he could hardly bear the excitement of being so close to the source of so many marvellous ones. Day and night, Yuanzhang did nothing but collect and admire rocks, not even favoring his supposed workplace with a glance, and neglecting his duties entirely.

It was then that Yang Jie arrived on his inspection rounds to see how the district was faring. Yang Jie was a close friend of Yuanzhang's, but could not in good conscience overlook his unprofessional behavior. So, making an extremely displeased face, he said: "According to the rumours abroad of late, your old habits are flaring up again. Our superiors would not be pleased to hear that an obsession with rocks has led you to abandon your duties."

But even at these thorned words from his superior, Mi Yuangzhang only smirked in reply. Then he withdrew from his left sleeve a single rock and showed it to Yang Jie.

"You may say those things," he said, "but would not anyone who met a rock like this fall in love?"

Yang Jie looked at the rock reluctantly. It was a fine specimen, lustrous like a jewel and with excellent ridges and hollows. But he kept his face impassive.

Mi Yuanzhang slipped the rock back into his left sleeve, and brought out another from his right. "How about this?" he asked. "Would not anyone who held a rock like this fall in love?"

In both color and shape, this rock was superior to the previous one by an entire grade. Mi Yuanzhang let it rest on the palm of his hand, and gazed upon it with inexpressible fondness in his eyes. Yang Jie did not soften his expression a bit.

Mi Yuanzhang returned that rock to the sleeve from which it had come, then withdrew from his breast a third rock, seemingly his most treasured. When the inspector saw this, his heart began to pound. Its form of black, overlapping ridges -- its mottled patterns, like courses of white water -- its marvelous interplay of grottoes and tracks -- it was altogether like a miniature heaven, reduced to a single jewel, and it barely seemed of this world.

"And this?" Mi Yuangzhang asked "Surely, anyone who saw this rock would fall in love with it."

And as Mi Yuanzhang's loving words hung in the air, Yang Jie cried out, "Truly it is as you say! I love it myself!" Then he snatched the rock from Yuanzhang's hand and fled from the building, as nimble and sly as a wild beast.

He had left his carriage waiting for him outside the gate, and no sooner had he leapt in than he cried to his attendants as urgently as if his whole body were a mouth:

"Flee! Flee! Quickly, quickly!"


Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty lived a loyal man named Qu Shisi. Trying to act as both pillar and foundation to his half-fallen nation, he tried all manner of reconstruction plans, but nothing can withstand the march of time and before long the castle he was protecting fell to the Manchu warriors, who made him their prisoner.

He was being carried along a mountain road past Duxiu Peak when he suddenly saw, in the shade of a tree, a peculiarly shaped rock that looked like a crouched animal with its ugly face raised to the heavens. Quickly he called for the soldiers carrying him to stop. "Hey! Put me down here for a moment. I just noticed that strange rock."

Qu Shisi had always loved garden rocks, and even now that he was being carried along as a captive could not bear to part from a discovery like this so soon.

The soldiers did as he asked. Qu Shisi, dropped to the ground, went closer to the rock and examined its features closely before finally straightening his collar and bowing politely.

"To meet you here was truly a blessing. I only wish I could be left by your side for longer," he said to it, as if speaking to a person. And then, no matter how long the soldiers waited, he made no attempt to stand again.


『石を愛するもの』 (Ishi wo ai suru mono), published 1931, written by Susukida Kyûkin (薄田泣菫), 1877-1945.

Aozora Bunko version entered by Kadota Hiroshi (門田裕志) and proofread by Takayanagi Noriko (高柳典子).

Thanks to Andy for help tracking down Qu Shisi.

Alternate spellings of author's name: Susukida Kyukin, Susukida Kyuukin


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