This paper examines the Korean connoisseurship of miniature rocks that culminated during the nineteenth century. Rocks are natural objects yet the diminutive size of these allowed them to be treated as artifacts: displayed indoors and the subject of aesthetic appreciation. With an eye to geography and modes of circulation, I scrutinize how this new craze for miniature rocks among elite literati such as Sin Wi (1769–1847), Kim Chŏnghi (1786–1856), and Cho Myŏnho (1803–1887) changed the focus of Chosŏn rock culture.
First, I investigate the geography of rock connoisseurship. Initially, grotesque rocks from Taihu Lake attracted metropolitan elites, who were mainly interested in their bizarre shape and exotic elements. At the beginning of nineteenth century, however, collectors turned their attention toward the rocks of their own landscape, such as those from Mount Kŭmgang and Koksan in P’yŏngan province. Their appreciation of these rocks included intimate sentiments, often associated with friends from the area. This practice demonstrates that rock culture had become localized within the peninsula and internalized in the minds of literati.
Next, I analyze how these rocks circulated among connoisseurs. Rocks were highly valued among literati, but were generally exchanged as gifts or bartered. In this way, treasured rocks avoided the stigma of commodification, while literati deepened their friendships, often including poetry and accounts of these rocks with them. I reveal the invisible benefits of these gift exchanges in enhanced solidarity and the accumulation of cultural capital by these rocks, which were considered more valuable than money.