Stephen Little points to a craggy, dark gray rock that’s about two feet tall. “Look at this one,” he says. “Its bizarre, dynamic, abstract shape is typical of the sort prized by collectors past and present. For the Chinese, it embodies the qi, pure primordial energy.” The rock stands in a display case, part of “Spirit Stones of China,” the Art Institute’s exhibit of unusually shaped stones revered by the Chinese for their eerie beauty and their role in Taoist cosmology as mediators between heaven and earth.

“The earliest written record of strange stones–that’s the translation of the Chinese term–dates back to the third century BC, in a historical text that notes weirdly shaped stones as part of a tribute to a mythical emperor,” says Little, the museum’s curator of Asian art. The educated class and merchants started collecting the rocks in earnest during the Tang dynasty in the eighth century, when a literature singing their praises first arose. The mania reached its peak 900 years later. “During the late Ming, a period of social and political turmoil, the cultivation of the arts reached a new height,” says Little. “Some of China’s most important dramas, poems, and paintings were produced then by men of exquisite refinement and encyclopedic knowledge. Many of them had worked as bureaucrats but retreated from politics. They sought to transcend the problems of the world through the arts.” Those with money became avid stone collectors, competing with a burgeoning class of merchants whose wealth derived from trading salt, silk, and furniture. “They were a status symbol, to be sure, ranked just below calligraphy, painting, and maybe jade,” says Little. “In a way, the stones raised some of the issues prompted by modern art: Are these found objects really works of art? Are they worthy of systematic collection? Even now, do they belong in this museum, or would they be more appropriate for the Field Museum?”

The rocks, which are mostly limestone, sparked little scientific curiosity in their collectors. “They vaguely sensed that these strange stones might have had something to do with the creation of the universe. And they probably believed in the stones’ magical properties,” Little says. “But it was the Taoist viewpoint that particularly appealed to them–the stones as concrete evidence of the movement of qi governed by the interactions of the polar forces known as yin and yang. That’s why the more ‘energetic’ a rock looks the more precious it is–even today.”

In China, this peculiar scholarly hobby continued into the 1920s. But civil strife followed by the Japanese invasion and the communist takeover put a halt to it. The Cultural Revolution caused many collections to be dispersed. Lately, however, east Asia has seen a resurgence of interest in the stones. A handful of Westerners have taken up collecting as a serious pursuit, aided by the easing of restrictions on buying and selling Chinese artifacts. Ian Wilson, a Bay Area businessman whose collection is on loan to the Art Institute, bought his first stone in 1970 during a tour of duty in China for Coca-Cola. He was struck by the gnarled, bonsai-size stone’s elegance and simplicity. Wilson believes–as Chinese collectors have always believed–that stones reflect their owner’s temperament and taste. “The essence and presence of each stone is of paramount importance to me,” he explains. “I prefer to view them in the context of the scholar’s studio–as artistic, contemplative objects with strong Taoist connotations and not just pieces of simple geological interest.”

One of the most unusual stones in Wilson’s collection is also his favorite. A whitish, tilting, porous-looking rock about ten inches long, it lies in a sandalwood box bearing the inscription of a merchant owner from the late 18th century. In keeping with the late Ming custom of having a stone painted from different angles, Wilson asked a Chinese painter to do the same. The resulting album shows twelve perspectives in the classical style, each with a title such as “Layered Clouds” and “Peak of Myriad Changes,” echoing the poetic turns of phrase favored by Ming connoisseurs. “This way, I not only honor the past but also add another layer of appreciation for future collectors,” Wilson says.

“Spirit Stones of China” opens Saturday at the Art Institute, Michigan and Adams (312-443-3600). “Stones in Chinese Culture,” a symposium complementing the exhibit, takes place on Saturday from 10 to 4 in the Fullerton Auditorium; it’s free with museum admission. For more information, see the museum listings in Section Two. –Ted Shen