News & Politics  |  Things to Do

We Can’t Stop Looking at These Unusual Rocks

They’re now on display at the National Arboretum.

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

Feeling depleted? Need a natural recharge? DC is now home to a collection of distinctive Chinese rocks, and staring at them just might give you some new perspective.

The Exhibit

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

Since 1976, DC’s National Bonsai Foundation has been promoting the art of miniature trees. Now it’s fostering appreciation for another Asian art form: Chinese scholars’ rocks, or gongshi. In 2020, more than 100 were donated to the National Arboretum, where they’re on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. A book, Cultivated Stones, details the collection.

The Stones

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

Originally sourced from China, the rocks are often shaped naturally by water or by contact with other stones. They’re also sometimes enhanced by expert carvers who, as the book puts it, try “to reveal the natural spirit of the stone itself.” Some resemble animals and mythological creatures, while others are more abstract.


The Tradition

Photographs by Stephen Voss.

The practice of cultivating these rocks dates to ancient China. People would display them like art and pass hours contemplating their contours. If you look closely, you’ll discover why fans believe they’re imbued with energy and are ever-changing—even if those changes happen over thousands of years and are invisible to the human eye.

This article appears in the February 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor