ANCIENT CHINESE SCHOLAR-OFFICIALS: THE PURSUIT OF LIFE AND SPIRITUAL WORLD
11/4/2019 – 9/6/2019
Shiren (scholars or scholar officials) is the collective term of the ancient Chinese intellectuals, and is also an elite social group unique to ancient China. They learned and spread knowledge; they participated in politics; they carried on and carried forward Chinese traditional culture. Under the influence of Confucian tradition, the scholars were aspired to pursue “self-cultivation, a well-managed family, and the ability to administer the state and to bring peace to the nation”. The scholars stressed personal cultivation, which embodies their spiritual pursuit and aesthetics ideals as well as reflects Chinese cultural attributes. These elegant charms are the interpretation of the Chinese scholars’ way of life, aesthetic appeals and philosophical thoughts, and they are closely related to Chinese traditional culture.
To learn and to serve
After the Qin and Han Dynasties, Confucianism became the orthodox in ancient China. Therefore, scholars received Confucian education in young age, participated in the imperial examinations based on Confucian classics, and used Confucian values as the code of conduct. As the elite of the society, the scholars regarded “civil service” as the best way to realize their own ideals and missions, and it was necessary to pass a series of Confucian-based examinations to enter the bureaucratic system.
Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC); given name: Qiu; courtesy name: Zhongni; a native of the present-day Qufu of Shandong Province), who is considered to be the founder of the Confucian school of thought, collected and edited poems, official records and other written works from ancient times. After his death, based on his words and works, Confucius’ followers posthumously compiled the “Analects” or Discourses, which represents important material for the research and examination of Confucian philosophy. Confucius thoughts and teachings had a far-reaching influence on subsequent generations, and became the fundamental values for state governance in ancient China. His portrait appears in schools, libraries, and temples. Confucius is so respected that he is officially worshiped twice a year.
To succeed within and with the world
Most of the ancient Chinese scholars had ardent political ideals. They often attached their personal value to the future of the nation/state and the humanity, pursuing “self-cultivation, a well-managed family, and the ability to administer the state and to bring peace to the nation”. In this process of self-fulfillment, the scholars established a humanistic culture that “in success, one tried to benefit the others.” with an all-inclusive, caring and compassionate spirit.
Music, chess, calligraphy and painting
In ancient China, zither (qin), chess (qi), calligraphy (shu) and painting (hua) were called the Four Arts (of a Chinese Scholar). They were the four main academic and artistic choices of the scholars; they also become the symbols of the scholars and the tools for self-enrichment. The skills related to these four arts can reflect the quality and education of the scholars: a good qin player is easy and wise; a good chess player is a strategic thinker; a good calligrapher is honest and genuine; a good painter is kind and artistic. The four arts are the essence of Chinese culture and a symbol of sophisticated culture.
Qin, a string instrument of the literati, is the first of the four arts. Among all musical instruments, the character of qin is the quaintest; with a clear yet dignified sound, qin appealed to the elegant taste of the scholars. Ancient scholars usually placed one in the study, whether they played it or not, as an elegant desk decor.
Go /Chess game
Qi or Go (weiqi) was a game as well as a cultivated art for Chinese scholars. It was regarded a shame for a scholar who did not play or was not good at the game. Weiqi is a kind of intellectual contest. During the game, all is quiet but the sound of the chess pieces is heard.
Tools of the scholar’s study
The study is a place where scholars read, write and engage in cultural activities. It is the haven for the scholar’s soul, where they find contentment in reading, playing qin, painting, composing poems, burning incense, and tea tasting. The corresponding furnishings are an important representation of the owner’s taste and aesthetic appeals. The tools and materials for Chinese painting are basically the same as those for Chinese calligraphy. The tools mainly include brush, ink stone, palette, brush-rinsing pot, drawing paper, drawing felt, paperweight, brush holder, pen rack, and brush-hanger etc. The materials mainly include rice paper, ink, and pigments, many of which are unique to China and attribute to the unique personality of Chinese calligraphy and painting.
Poetry, wine, flower and tea
Poetry, wine, flower, tea, music, chess game, calligraphy and painting are collectively called the Scholar’s Eight Arts of Living. Those who know poetry read minds; those who know wines find kindred spirits; those who know flowers have pleasant character; and those who know tea have virtue.
Wine as company
Ancient Chinese scholars seem to have a special liking for wine; drinking has been a part of life for everyone, whether rich or poor, successful or miserable, joyful or sorrowful; it fits in any occasion, should it be social gathering, send-off party, at time of disappointment or great hope. Drinking makes beautiful verses or a good book even more enticing.
Admire the beauty of flowers and drink tea
The most “elegant” quality of scholars comes necessarily with corresponding lifestyle. The tea culture of scholars has most profound cultural meaning spiritual contents. It was a great pleasure for scholars to reading while drinking, admiring the beauty of flower and enjoying beautiful scenery.
Some scholars regarded the ancient objects more refined than the present products. Retro is an ordinary phenomenon in the history of art. Traditional Chinese art sees many retro or replicas in many fields. The thousands of years’ cultural legacy and continuous archeological discoveries further strengthened the scholars’ affection and admiration for the past. A theological explanation for the emergence of retro art is that when tired or disappointed in the present, people always have the sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, hoping to return to the flourishing or golden age.
Flower and bird as a feast for the mind
In the traditional Chinese thinking, all creatures bear aesthetic implications and are metaphors of the mystical universe. Thus, flowers, trees, leaves, birds, animals, and insects, become the ideal object to represent the scholars’ thoughts and emotions. In addition to visual pleasure, these subject matters also debase the worldly worries and foster pastoral longings. Thus, they become the popular symbols of poetry and painting.