Suseok (수석), also called viewing stones, is the Korean term for small naturally occurring or shaped rocks which are traditionally valued. Such stones are similar to Chinese scholar’s rocks and Japanese suiseki.
Suseok can be any color. There are a wide variety of sizes. Suseok can weigh hundreds of pounds or less than one pound. The term also means stones which are placed in traditional Korean gardens.
Suseok began as votive art over 3000 years ago, and began to be seen as worthy of scholars a thousand years ago. The art usually works on three scales: large installations of monumental shaped stones as ornamental gates; medium sized shaped stones for landscape decoration within Korean gardens ; and the smaller shaped stones for scholar’s tables(선비) which is the most important.
Early on important sites within landscape were marked with shaped stones, much as those distance markers on post roads. Burial sites were as well given permanent marking by large scale tumulus or mounds, often surrounded by anthropomorphic shaped stones much akin to that of Inuit or First Nations’ memory markers. The shamanistic belief of nature being alive, and large scaled elements of nature having souls, has led to the continued use of massive sculpted stone in natural forms throughout Korean traditional entranceways as the firstgrowth cedarwood for gates is now rare.
As Confucian scholarship ascended into the golden age of the Chosun(조선) dynasty, scholar rocks became an essential fixture of the writing tables of the yangban(양반) class of scholars, and a brilliant example of Confucian art. The repeated Japanese invasions of Korea, culminating with the 50 year occupation period from 1895 to 1945, saw great theft of Korean scholar stones as well as theft of larger pieces taken to Japan from Korean gardens or Seon garden and put into the Zen garden without reference to origins. Recreating a historical approach to Korean scholar stones is difficult, but it is being done.
Smaller ceramic versions of scholar’s rocks have been seen cast in celadon, and used as brush-holders, and as well as water droppers for scholar’s calligraphy – particularly in the shape of small mountains.
-Soosuk, #72 in a series of books on Korean culture, Daewonsa Publishing Co, Ltd (Korea, 1989)