All around Korea, we saw rocks, both large and small, obviously strategically placed in public gardens, small garden borders, and at entranceways. We asked about these, and it turns out that stones are a big part of Korean culture and history.
The Korean name for these shaped rocks is Suseok, also called viewing stones. Such stones are similar to Chinese scholars’ rocks and Japanese suiseki.
Suseok began as votive art over 3000 years ago, and began to be seen as worthy of scholars around a thousand years ago. Early on, important sites in the landscape were marked with shaped stones, similar to distance markers on post roads. Burial sites were also permanently marked by a large tumulus or mound, often surrounded by anthropomorphic-shaped stones, similar to those of Inuit memory markers.
This art form is usually on three scales: large installations of monumental shaped stones as ornamental gates or traditional entranceways; medium-sized shaped stones for landscape decoration within Korean gardens; and the smaller shaped stones for scholar’s tables, which was very important.
Suseok can be any color and a wide variety of sizes and shapes. In prehistoric times, Koreans worshipped nature, the sun, stars, water, rocks, stones, and trees. They especially believed that rocks had more power than water and other things in nature. So, the arrangement of rocks is considered one of the “essential” elements in designing a traditional Korean garden. Korean gardens are natural, informal, simple and unforced, aiming to blend with the natural world. Korean garden culture can be traced back more than 2,000 years. In recent years, 300 documents have been found, written during the Koryo (918-1392) and Choson (1392-1910) dynasties, that contain detailed records about traditional Korean gardens, many of which survive and can be visited today.
Koreans have recently rediscovered their stone garden tradition and there’s been a
revival of interest in rock arrangements in gardens.
We can also find smaller ceramic versions of scholar’s rocks cast in celadon, used as brush-holders; and water droppers for scholar’s calligraphy, especially in the shape of small mountains.
Enjoy these photos of examples we found on our last trip to Seoul.