Ian Boyden > Essays > Nepholithos


Reveries Involving the Inversion of Cloud and Stone

Ian H. Boyden



Nothing changes form so quickly as clouds, except perhaps rocks.

—Victor Hugo[i]


Someone carried the stone away at midnight,

And suddenly I felt the mountain mists and green hills had disappeared.

Isn't it a better fate for the stone to roam

Among the confused clouds than to rest in a splendid house?

—Huang Tingjian[ii]



There are occasions, if we are open to them, when we encounter a stone capable of inducing a profound and blissful reverie. In such an encounter, our imagination envelopes the stone, or perhaps the stone lodges itself in our psyche. Stones inhabit our dreams and imagination in a manner quite different from how they inhabit the earth. Their agency shifts: fundamental properties of gravity, weight, stability, durability, translucency, and heat are often completely and delightfully overturned. And a wealth of associations leads to exceptionally diverse trajectories and considerations. For instance, some rocks reveal potent microcosms of other landscapes, while others disclose some zoomorphic fantasy; some become familiar acquaintances and confidants, and others transform our notions of continuity or shift our perception of time. Because stones live so much more slowly than we do, we can generally return to them again and again with only ourselves seeming to have changed. Thus, they become a means of measure for our own spirit. And so it is that a stone—an inert and solid stone—leads us to contemplate transformation and the ephemeral.


In the course of my explorations of such stones I have encountered a curious aesthetic phenomenon that appears to bridge many cultures and eras: stone, as a fundamental material in the imagination, finds an exquisite and evocative ally in the clouds. It is as if, in the mind's eye, the two are inextricably bound together in various states of inversion, borrowing from each other, one hiding in the shadow of the other, each emphatically declaring what the other is and is not. The stone, solid and unchanging, unfurls in the constant flux of the airy cloud; and the cloud, ephemeral and seemingly autogenetic, finds its roots in the gravity and the history of immense forces latent in a stone. The cloud's intangibility discovers its counterpoint in the distinctly haptic language of the stone. And in this comparison, the stone, especially one of intimate stature, adopts the cloud's immense scale. Nepholithos: Cloud-Stone. This oneiric coupling of stone and cloud appears repeatedly in sources as diverse as the annals of China's inveterate petrophiles, the observations by philosophers of reverie and dream, the esoteric images of medieval alchemists, and the verse of poets throughout the ages.


Consider the following examples. In China, where there exists a long tradition of collecting stones as objects of meditation, fantastic stones are referred to as “roots of clouds.”[iii] Or contemplate this observation by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “Quite often dreamers of clouds see heaps of rocks in cloud-filled skies. The reverse holds true as well. The life of the imagination is one of exchange. Great dreamers see the sky on earth, livid and fallen—in a mass of rocks, all the menace of a stormy sky.”[iv] Or recall Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's magnificent book Stones of the Sky (Las piedras del cielo), whose first poem includes the following segment:

The succulent


had not only clouds,

not only space smelling of oxygen,

but an earthly stone

flashing here and there

changed into a dove,

changed into a bell

into immensity, into a piercing



One could go on and on with a litany of such examples, but I would like to investigate this phenomenon through the consideration of a single stone: the Fog Remnant Stone (cat. no. 1). However, first, I would like to clarify something. All of the stones in this catalogue are of a particular type: they are stones that have been selected and/or interpreted by one person and then shared with others, and as such their agency has shifted. This important fact is easy to forget, as each stone carries with it the aura of that wildness that exists outside the cultural project of Homo sapiens. And, in fact, that apparent nonengagement in the foibles of humanity is, for some, one of stone's principal attractions.


However, there is no shared object that does not participate (at least in some small way) in our cultural dialogue. For those mourning this loss of innocence, do not despair. For every shared stone there are countless others (of the other type: the unshared and therefore truly wild) waiting in the fields. Indeed, how we approach a stone in the wild is generally personal. When we encounter it, unannounced, under a tree, by the shore of the ocean, under the clear water of a stream, what we choose to bring to that encounter and how we bring it are uniquely our own. However, the moment we choose to present the rock to others—in a photograph or a poem, or even the physical rock itself—we implicate that stone in our own aesthetic undertaking. The stone becomes endowed with some aesthetic direction.


As presenters of stones, we impart this aesthetic direction to greater and lesser degrees, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. And it is hard not to be humbled by or to deny the raw and profound beauty of this act. Of course, the receiver of a stone plays a part in this exchange as well. Sometimes the sense of responsibility inherent in such exchange may be absent—it is, after all, just another stone—and the receiver, after a short while, drops the stone and it sinks from memory with little lasting effect. At other times, the receiver learns to empathize with the stone and the presenter's vision, and ultimately internalizes the stone. Then the stone takes on a new life and it surfaces and resurfaces at later times, even perhaps after the original stone has disappeared. That stone has entered into the cultural sphere and, as an objet trouvé, may in fact be elevated to the status of objet d'art.


The Presentation of the Fog Remnant Stone


Once a stone has found entry to the heart, others generally follow. So permit me to share a stone that I cherish very dearly—the small Fog Remnant Stone, which occupies the opening segment this exhibition and provides a splendid example of how aesthetically sophisticated a stone can become. This is a stone that carries much more than its own weight: it can be used to triangulate back through both geologic and human history; it is a portal to a river of tradition; it is a stone that seems to change as effortlessly as a cloud.


The stone itself is a piece of grayish-white, grotesquely attenuated, and foraminate limestone of unknown provenance. From its perch on a wooden base (maybe elm), it rises precariously, in defiance of gravity, with fingers of stone extending laterally to right and left as well as skyward. The stone stretches out mostly in a single plane so that it appears to have a front and back, although it would be difficult to say which is which, as both sides are quite compelling. Though the stone has been cleaned with a brush, the remains of shell-like material here and there on its surface suggest that it was found within an intertidal zone along some coastline or estuary. And we can determine from its manner of presentation and the inscriptions that adorn the base that it is culturally Chinese.


But not so long ago this stone was not Chinese. Rather, it was a stone with its own story from the geologic book—a story that is a reverie in itself. Limestone is a type of biogenic sedimentary rock. In this case, the sediment is the product of the slow accretion of untold millions of skeletons of small marine organisms such as mollusks, corals, and bryozoa that accumulated on the floor of an ancient sea. The skeletons of these organisms, composed predominately of calcium carbonate, partially dissolved with water to form a calcareous ooze. This ooze then resolidified into the rock known as limestone. Tremendous tectonic forces brought this now solidified seafloor to the surface, where it became exposed to the voices of birds, the light of the moon, and the elements. The stone began to erode. Limestone reacts chemically with water to erode in a process known as solution weathering, which results in highly crenulated surfaces with deep pits and holes.


The Fog Remnant Stone was subjected to just such a process, resulting in its truly fantastic form, and before it dissolved completely, it was discovered at the water's edge and taken prisoner. In the hands of its anonymous captor/admirer, it was placed into a new kind of story, with the constraints and contributions of a new culture. It was given a base and elevated to the status of aesthetic object, an object to be used as a vehicle for contemplation.


The stone, without changing form in the slightest, shifted from the geologic sphere to the human. In this case, it became Chinese. And the most obvious clue is a linguistic one: adorning the stone's base are two inscriptions in classical Chinese. The first is its title: Fog Remnant Stone (wu can shi, 雾残石), which is engraved on the front of the base and written in the archaic calligraphic forms found in seals of the Warring States period (481–221 BCE). The second inscription, engraved on the back side of the base, includes six lines of poetry written in a form of calligraphy known as small standard script. There is no signature to indicate who found the stone, no indication of when or where it was found.


One of the magical aspects of a stone such as this is its capacity to generate questions, and there are plenty. The stone's title and the lines of text on its base are from The Twenty-Four Categories of Poetry (Ershisi shipin), a celebrated tract by the Tang dynasty poet and critic Sikong Tu (837–908). Although highly impressionistic and mysterious, the aesthetic observations contained in this text have served as essential tools for critics and connoisseurs over the past several hundred years. The invocation of this text allies the Fog Remnant Stone with one of the most elusive traditions of aesthetic thought.


The stone's title derives from Sikong's ninth category, titled “Intricate Beauty,” or qili, lines five and six of which read: “In the last of the fog by the water's edge, there are red apricot blossoms in a grove.”[vi] Translator Stephen Owen points out in his commentary that Sikong appears to have gone out of his way to distance this category from the opulence and frivolity often associated with beauty. The red of the apricot blossoms is beautiful, but the intensity of its color has been muted by the fog. Applied to the stone, which is indeed intricate but not beautiful, this title and its associations do many things. For instance, they link the stone with clouds (“the last of the fog”), especially the dissolution of the morning cloud cover so often found above bodies of water. The stone represents not the birth of a cloud, but a cloud that is about to evaporate into thin air. It is a cipher of desolate beauty which we must grasp quickly before it disappears completely. It holds the rich silence of early day. Furthermore, in the context of the poem, the stone has become a translucent cloud and evocative intermediary. We are invited to view beauty through the veil of the stone, a veil that will soften the potential vulgarity of “the beautiful.”


My initial reaction to this stone described as cloud felt delightfully natural. But why this was the case began to trouble me. Again and again I had to remind myself that there is the stone, and there is the reflection of the stone in us. And that reflection of the stone—the stone in our imagination—is very playful. As Bachelard notes, our imagination seems to thrive by combining diverse elements of experience: the “dynamic imagination puts seemingly unrelated objects into the same motion.”[vii] When we look at a stone, we might try to comprehend it through combinations of other primal materials such as fire, water, and wind. Suddenly, we encounter these materials in their imaginary form: imaginary fire, imaginary water, imaginary wind, and so forth. For a moment, the space around the stone fills with wind or generates great heat or experiences a great flood. But stones are motionless. And here we find the magic of the cloud: when we consider stones, we often ironically celebrate motion. When the stone becomes associated with a cloud, it adopts the cloud's invitation to travel and to transcend the normal confines of space.


The six lines of poetry on the Fog Remnant Stone address this very issue. They read:

It comes not from the magic spark of spirit,

it comes not from the subtlety of [Nature's] impulses.

It is as if joining the white clouds,

and going off with a clear wind.

Drawn from afar, one seems to reach it;

approach it, it is already gone.[viii]

This text comes from Sikong's twenty-first category, titled “Transcendence,” or chaoyi. Owen observes that the translation of chaoyi as “transcendence” should not imply the religious/philosophical connotations we find in Western languages. Rather, it “means to pass beyond the limits, concerns, and ties of this world.” And by passing beyond, one enters a state of unity with the Way (dao) or Nature (zi ran).[ix] This notion poses interesting questions regarding our stone. Is the stone transcendent? Are we to pass beyond the limits of the stone? Is the stone a vehicle for passing beyond the limits of the world and uniting with the Way? Must we use earth to pass beyond earth?


The lines of poetry address the elusive qualities of the relationship between stone and viewer and the agency of the imagination. These are at once concrete and seemingly comprehensible yet distant and ineffable. Because the subject of the poem is conspicuously absent, we are invited to insert our own subject: the stone, ourselves, the state of transcendence, a moment of comprehension. Again, more questions are raised, not because they require specific answers, but because they set a course of thought. What can we intuit from a stone, and is that helpful? Where does our appreciation come from if not from “the magic spark of spirit?” What sustains the stone, and can it sustain us? Can we unlock the motives of the stone? What light is cast on the imagined stone? Does that mirror of the stone in us cast a shadow? Is it the shadow of a rock?


These lines also present the stone with a new form of momentum—advancement and retreat, here but not-here, there but not-there—the types of movement that happen at the very edge of definition. This motion finds physical form in the image of the clouds. These are not low-lying stratus clouds of the stone's namesake, but cumulus and cirro-cumulus ones at play higher in the atmosphere. These are clouds that change shape with wild abandon, into which we effortlessly read a multitude of images, including, at times, even rocks:

Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish,

A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,

A towered citadel, a pendent rock,

A forkèd mountain, or blue promontory

With trees upon't that nod unto the world

And mock our eyes with air . . .

(Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, Scene 14)

These clouds do not threaten rain; they simply dance slowly and hypnotically through the sky, occasionally blocking the sun, their shadows rolling across the ground. Asserting that the stone is one of these clouds allies the stone with the powers of transformation (transcendence, transmutation, transmogrification, and so forth), fantastic movement, and unhindered travel as well as with the daydream. Again we encounter that strange irony: the stone, as a material, seems antithetical to transcendence. It is a material, as Bachelard notes, of determination and will. If you were to reach for this stone, you would grab it. What is it in the stone that slips away when we approach it?


We can never look at the same cloud twice. We cannot say the same about looking at a stone (the molecular world aside). Clouds and stones embody different qualities of time, one much faster and the other much slower than our own. Caught between the two, between the denizens of heaven and earth, we may begin to feel that sense of vertigo captured so beautifully in the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu's marvelous line “Heaven and earth, one solitary gull,” from his poem “A Traveler at Night Writes His Thoughts.” Observations of stone and observations of cloud require a dramatic kinesthetic shift. When we observe a cloud changing shape, we ourselves remain static; but to achieve that similar sense of transformation with stone, we must physically move around a single stone, or move the stone itself, or shift our gaze among many stones.


As a species, humans are particularly adept at moving stones (something we share with ants). Sometime in the distant past, that act became wrapped up in the spiritual. For instance, when looking at the megaliths that compose Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of ancient Egypt, or the Inca structures at Machu Picchu, it is hard not to concede that the stones were moved with a sense of purpose—a conviction that they might provide access to some greater unknown. The stones were means for measuring and interpreting the cosmos and its cycles as well as for addressing that most profound question of how we relate to the greater world. And other stones began to be moved to address more immediately human issues: longevity, transcendence, and reverie. Considered from this vantage, the Fog Remnant Stone is, in a sense, an atavism (albeit on a smaller scale) of that original attempt to transcend the bonds of this world through the movement of a huge stone. Thus, we find that the concept of transcendence embedded in the stone's title and inscriptions was not idiosyncratic or unique to that stone, but one that engages a much wider history of discussion and practice.[x]


Some of the earliest writings in China to address these concerns date from the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE) and they mention the moving of stones to the imperial garden of Emperor Han Wudi (141–86 BCE). The motivation for moving the stones lay in the Daoist quest for longevity. The secrets of long life were believed to be held by semidivine beings called “The Immortals” who had managed to transcend the bonds of the earth. The problem was that it was very difficult to actually encounter one of these beings, as they lived in inaccessible places: deep in the Kunlun Mountains to the west or on the Islands of the Immortals (Penglai, Fangzhang, Yingzhou, and Huliang) far out in the Eastern Sea. Furthermore, when they left these places, they had a bothersome habit of flying through the air, traveling in disguise, and generally remaining aloof from human society. Because it seemed impossible to successfully go in search of the immortals, the emperor devised a clever ploy to lure them to him. He decided to re-create the rocky Islands of the Immortals in his own garden and to do it with such verisimilitude that the immortals would mistake these islands for their actual abodes and come down to live there, at which point the emperor could attain the secrets he desired. Lakes were dug, and stones were moved.[xi]


Seeing that Han Wudi died in 86 BCE, we can assume that he did not succeed in luring the immortals to his garden. However, the idea of building miniature islands and mountains meant to be understood as microcosms of these far-off realms has certainly endured. It has endured not only in gardens, where these islands and mountains can be found to this day, but in other aesthetic arenas as well, including painting and sculpture, and ultimately the practice informed the tradition of collecting and presenting singular, relatively small stones known as scholar's stones, or gongshi.


It is not clear when the collecting of rare and unusual stones took hold in China, but it would appear to have begun sometime during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589).[xii] By the Tang dynasty (618–907), the practice was quite popular, and images of these stones in paintings as well as written documents describing them abound. Such stones were treasured objects of the literati. For instance, scholars Li Deyu (787–849) and Niu Sengru (778–847) filled their estates with fantastic stones.[xiii] And these stones inspired poets such as Du Fu (712–770) and Bai Juyi (722–846). From the beginning, the love of stones engendered mystery. Bai, who wrote more than one hundred poems on rocks, describes how “[Niu Sengru] loves Taihu stones. Stones do not have words, nor do they produce music. They have neither odor nor flavor…. Why does he love stones so much?”[xiv]


A persistent answer to this question, found in Tang dynasty poems and essays, is that these stones function as microcosms of the distant mountains. The stones were objects for dreaming. Writing about Niu's collection of stones, Bai observes that:

In the evening when strong winds blow and heavy rains pour down, their caverns are open, as if drinking clouds and spurting lightening. They are imposing and awe-inspiring. In the morning when mists disappear and their scenes are beautiful, their crags and hills appear adorned with makeup, presenting a hazy atmosphere so agreeable that you may flirt with them…. In short, all the great mountains, caves and valleys have come here. Just sit before them and in one glimpse you will see a mountain a hundred ren high and a landscape a thousand li wide in a stone the size of a fist.[xv]


In China, the microcosm has been a primary means for addressing issues of transcendence. And in a scholar's stone, one rarely sees merely a mountain in miniature. The stone is to be approached on much more metaphysical levels. Such stones are understood as other worlds: they are the haunts of immortals, hermits, monks, and alchemists; theythe eight extremities (of the earth) were understood to be mountains. A century and a half later, we encounter a significant transformation of this term in these lines from a poem by Emperor Xiaowudi (r. 454–464) of the Song dynasty (420–479, not to be confused with the later Song dynasty): “Stored-up mist coils round the cavity of the winds; Pent-up water drenches the root of the clouds.”[xvii] The term “roots of clouds” has shifted to mean mountains, especially the deep mountains. By the beginning of the Song dynasty (this time the later one, 960–1279), yet another shift occurs from mountain to single stones in the mountain. We find these lines in “The Following Verse Responds to Wu Changwen's Gift of Eighty-eight Pieces of Stoneware” by the renowned poet Mei Yaochen (1002–1062):

The mountain workers broke their tools daily.

Due not to chopping down trees,

But to digging roots of clouds from the earth.[xviii]


By the time stones began to be collected as individual objects, this connection between cloud and stone was deeply ingrained in the literary imagination. We find the following description in records of the stones collected by Li Deyu: “There was also a flat stone that, when rubbed would reveal the hidden shapes of the clouds and mists.”[xix] And Bai Juyi writes of the variety of shapes among Niu Sengru's stones, including some that “coil up like beautiful clouds.”[xx] People began to name such stones. While many were named after places, for example, Su Shi's famous stone Mount Jiuhua in a Pot (Huzhong jiuhua), others describe qualities or characteristics of the stone, as in another of Su Shi's favorite stones, Snow Wave Stone (Xuelang shi). Among this latter category of nomenclature, one finds many stones that directly reference clouds.


Here are a handful of names given to rocks in the past eight hundred years, following that essential leap from stone to cloud: Auspicious Cloud Peak (Ruiyun feng), Wrinkled Cloud Peak (Zhouyun feng), Surging Cloud Stone (Yongyun shi), Cloud of Mount Bo (Boshan yun), Cloud Root (Yun gen), Passing Cloud (Chiu yun), Tiger Running through Clouds (Zuanyun chihu), Half Cloud (Ban yun), Cloud-water Rock (Yunshui shi), Cavern Cloud (Xiu yun), Cloud Bone (Yun gu), and Crested Cloud (Guan yun). These are the predecessors of the Fog Remnant Stone. The names of all of these stones include the word yun, or cloud. It is notable that the current stone suggests yet another leap in the connection between cloud and stone. All of the historical names are composed using the generic term for cloud (yun); however, in this case, the name invokes a specific form of cloud—fog (wu).


And this brings us to the end. There is the stone, and then there is the non-stone of the stone, which resides in our imagination. The stone has been placed on a wooden stand; we have surrounded the non-stone of the Fog Remnant Stone with sophisticated systems of interpretation. It is now a potent microcosm: it is the story of limestone, an island of the immortals, a cloud, an aesthetic statement, and all the distance, direction, and momentum these imply. Furthermore, it carries with it a history of individuals who have loved strange stones and sought to understand them, to ally them with our own destiny. The stone has a destiny, but it is not our destiny. The non-stone, too, has a destiny, but again it is not our destiny. Its trajectory runs parallel to our dreams and reveries. In this destiny, the non-stone of the stone may come to imitate the heavens and become nothing less than a cloud.



[i] Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea, trans. James Hogarth (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), 12.

[ii] Keming Hu, Scholar's Rocks in Ancient China: The Suyuan Stone Catalogue (Trumble, Conn.: Weatherhill, Inc., 2002), 12.

[iii] Scholar and calligrapher Hua Rende has stated that they were also called “clouds within the earth” (di li zhi yun) (conversation with the author, June 2005). However, I have yet to find another reference to this phrase or its origin.

[iv] Gaston Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will, trans. Kenneth Haltman (Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2002), 142.

[v] Pablo Neruda. Stones of the Sky, trans. James Nolan (Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1970), 3.

[vi] Translation by Stephen Owen, in Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 322.

[vii] Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams, trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell (Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1988), 190.

[viii] Translation by Owen, in Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, 346.

[ix] These issues are too complex to be summarized here in any detail. For those interested in pursuing these ideas further, I recommend part two of Toshihiko Izutsu's Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[x] There are several books dedicated to the subject of stones and the role they play in Chinese art. A brief list of books that have informed my understanding of them includes: Kiyohiko Munakata, Sacred Mountains in Chinese Art (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991); John Hay, Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock in Chinese Art (New York: China Institute in America, 1985); Robert D. Mowry, Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' Rocks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums); Maggie Keswick, The Chinese Garden (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); Edward H. Schafer, Tu Wan's Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961); and Keming Hu, The Spirit of Gongshi: Chinese Scholar's Rocks (Newton, Mass.: L. H. Inc., 1998).

[xi] See, for instance, Keswick, The Chinese Garden, 50

[xii] The earliest record I have found of the presentation of a single, isolated stone is in a painting on the eastern wall of the tomb of General Cui Fen (501–550) of the Northern Qi period (550–577). Interestingly, this painting depicts the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of literati of the Western Jin dynasty (265–317), one of whom is appreciating a fantastically shaped stone. The painting thus suggests that the appreciation of such stones dates to the time of the Western Jin. However, I was unable to find any evidence from that time period. For more on this tomb, see Wu Wenqi's article “Painted Murals of the Northern Qi Period in the Tomb of General Cui Fen, Orientations 29, no. 6 (June 1998): 60–69.

[xiii] See Hay, Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth, 20–24

[xiv] Quoted in Hu, Scholar's Rocks in Ancient China, 146.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Translation by Chui-Mi Lai, in Autumn, Rain, and Leaving Office: Ten Poems by Zhang Xie (master's thesis, University of Washington, 1986), 61.

[xvii] Quoted in Hay, Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth, 52.

[xviii] Translation by Shu-chu Wei-Peng, in a letter to the author, January 12, 2006.

[xix] Quoted in Hay, Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth, 20.

[xx] Quoted in Hu, Scholar's Rocks in Ancient China, 146.