All is quiet. A trickle of water flows in the garden outside the window. A breeze whispers through the window screen. An inky brush slaps softly against paper as you write at the desk. At home in 18th century China, you might easily forget that a bustling town lies beyond the walls of this room.
Clay tiles cover the walls and floor. They keep the place cool even in the sweaty heat of southern China. You see no bright colors or flashy gold here, only the shine of polished wood. Glimpses of the miniature garden outside take the imagination to a wild place far beyond the edge of town.
Of course, no one would mistake this room for a simple hut in the wilderness. Even the gnarled tree root in the far corner, now a stand for an antique pot, has the same high polish as the gleaming desk. But a room like this one was more than a quiet get-away spot for a city dweller. It was a place to connect with nature through poetry, painting and music, in search of spiritual peace.
China, Jiangsu Province The Studio of Gratifying Discourse, 1797
This room once stood between two small courtyard gardens in the family compound of a government official. Only the formal reception hall was more important within the family compound. There, the whole family gathered on special occasions to receive guests or pay respect to their ancestors. This room, on the other hand, was a place for the head of the household to enjoy books, nature, and the arts, alone or with a small group of friends.
Government officials in imperial China were well-rounded scholars. The difficult civil service exam required years of study. Scholars had to master the teachings of Confucius and his followers, the basis of Chinese government for thousands of years. But they also had to be skilled in poetry, calligraphy, and painting. These subjects developed their ability to think carefully and sensitively, important qualities in an able administrator.
The arts remained a passion for many officials. They often retired from government service while still fairly young to devote themselves to reading and writing poetry, playing chess, and practicing music. Such men, known as wen jen (“men of letters”) or “literati” in English, were highly respected for their good taste and artistic accomplishments.
The most important room in the family compound was a hall like this one, used for formal gatherings of family and guests.
Thousands of government officials served the emperor of China. Badges on the front of their coats indicated their rank. The silver pheasant here means this coat belonged to a fifth rank official.
Every scholar’s study contained a ch’in, or zither, an ancient Chinese musical instrument. It was a symbol of great learning since the days of Confucius in the 6th century BC.
The teachings of Confucius described an individual’s duties to family and the state. Harmony among individuals would bring harmony in the world. But a real understanding of the world, most Chinese believed, came from the close study of nature.
Although nature seems wild and uncontrollable, it has its own order. Seemingly opposite forces–light and dark, life and death, creation and destruction–are in fact part of a single force, the tao, or “way,” of nature. Taoist philosophers teach that an individual must above all understand his place in nature. All actions must follow nature’s flow to be right and good.
Some literati scholars went to live alone in the wilderness to study the way of nature. Such hermits were greatly admired. But most literati stayed closer to home. They collected reminders of nature, like rocks, gnarled wood, and patterned stone, to think through the puzzles of nature in elegant comfort.
A scholar might see the rocks in his garden as miniature mountains and explore their peaks and valleys in his imagination.
Literati scholars collected rocks shaped over time by flowing water. Such rocks gave them a sense of the forces of nature.
Scholars took delight in accidents of nature. The patterns in the piece of marble framed in this screen suggest a mountainous landscape.
The “four arts” of the literati scholar were painting, calligraphy, playing the ch’in, or zither, and the game of chess. All these activities sharpened the mind through years of study and practice. When enjoyed in the company of friends with similar interests, they were a focus for meaningful conversation. That companionship gave this room its name, “The Studio of Gratifying Discourse,” carved on a plaque on the wall.
Nature was the most common subject of both poetry and painting. If a scholar could not live the life of a hermit alone in the wilderness himself, he could recreate the experience through words and pictures. Looking at a famous painting would inspire a poem in response, which he might add to the picture in his own calligraphy.
The tools of Chinese painting and calligraphy the brush, ink, water, and paper are very difficult to control. The most skilled painters are able to harness accidental effects to express their own ideas, all within the format of age-old Chinese traditions. This balance of natural forces, self-control, and society perfectly echoes the scholar’s sense of his own place in the world.
Scholars enjoyed practicing their arts in the company of friends. Here, a famous group of scholars listen to the zither in a rock garden.
Many literati paintings were based on famous pictures by earlier masters, but here Wang Ch’en has painted a scene from the region where he worked as a government official.
Painting and calligraphy used the same tools–a brush, inkstone, and paper. This poem begins, “The mountain’s rocky girth has endured a thousand years."
Join two or three friends to put together a scrapbook of your favorite songs, books, movies, and artwork. Have each friend write a few sentences next to a selection about why they admire it. What would be the most comfortable place to do this project? What kind of music would you listen to? What else would you want around you? How might this activity be similar to a gathering of literati scholars?
Objects can lead the imagination to faraway places. Scholars imagined themselves traveling through a landscape suggested by the shape of a rock, for example. Find an object in your surroundings and imagine the journey a miniature version of yourself might take climbing around it. Write a description of the journey. Can another reader identify the object you had in mind?
The Scholar’s Study is permanently on view at The Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bring along a pencil and paper and see if it inspires a poem in you.
Tools for painting and calligraphy, such as brushes, ink stones, water droppers, and brush pots, were collector’s items among literati scholars. Use the search feature on Mia’s website to see a variety of scholar artists’ tools. What different types of tools do you see? What themes do you notice in the decoration? Which are your favorites?