Dai Jing Dropping a Line on the Bank of the Wei River

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In China, the literate elite were often referred to as the "literati." The literati were the gentry class, composed of individuals who passed the civil service exams (or those for whom this was the major goal in life) and who were both the scholarly and governmental elite of the society. The literati also prided themselves on their mastery of calligraphy. Often, as an adjunct to calligraphy, they were also able to paint. During the Qing dynasty, both the Individualists and the Orthodox school masters came from this elite scholar class. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn, Consultant,]

“The Scholar-Artists were proficient scholars who often embellished their paintings with poetry. These men were part of a long-standing tradition that had existed in China as far back as the 11th century. Members of the educated elite, also called the "literati," had already taken possession of calligraphy -- the art of writing -- as a form of self-expression. But by the 11th century, they began to apply the aesthetic principles of calligraphic brushwork to painting. They began by painting subjects that could be depicted easily with the brush techniques that they had mastered in the art of calligraphy, such as bamboo, rocks, and pine trees. This approach to subject matter set scholar-artists apart from commercial artists, who pursued a more representational manner.

Chinese literati artists often wrote poems directly on their paintings. This practice emphasized the importance of both poetry and calligraphy to the art of painting and also highlighted the notion that a painting should not try to represent or imitate the external world, but rather to express or reflect the inner state of the artist. The artist's practice of writing poetry directly on the painting also led to the custom of later appreciators of the work -- perhaps the initial recipient of the painting or a later owner -- adding their own reactions to the work, often also in the form of poetry. These inscriptions could be added either directly on the surface of the painting, or sometimes on a sheet of paper mounted adjacent to the painting. In this way some handscrolls accommodated numerous colophons by later owners and admirers. Thus in Chinese art the act of ownership entailed the responsibility of not only caring for the work properly, but to a certain extent also recording one's response to it.

Good Websites and Sources: List of Emperors and Other World Historical Leaders ; List of Emperors ; Wikipedia Long List with references to major historical events Wikipedia ; Wikipedia shorter list Wikipedia Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi ; Book: Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor by Ann Paludan. Forbidden City: Book:Forbidden City by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist. Web Sites FORBIDDEN CITY ; Wikipedia; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites World Heritage Site ; Temple of Heaven: Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO World Heritage Site ; Chinese History: 2) Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia Books: “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty”by Charles Benn, Greenwood Press, 2002; "Cambridge History of China" Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press)

Chinese Scholar's Library and Study

Elite Qing dynasty scholar's worked in a study with an attached rock garden. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has a replica of such a study called "The Studio of Gratifying Discourse". It has an attached rock garden and is modeled after the study at a large Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1912) residence located in the West Tung-t'ing Hills district of Lake T'ai in the village of Tang-li. A commemorative plaque in the garden wall dates the building to 1797.[Source: Minneapolis Institute of Arts |:|]

According to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: “ After the reception hall, the library or study (shu-fang) can be considered the most important room in a traditional upper class Chinese home. The library and garden offered a quiet, spiritual sanctuary in an urban setting for scholars to read, write, paint and otherwise refine their inner sensibilities. |:|

left“A scholar's library or studio was a place to quietly enjoy art, literature, and music. It was a place for intellectual and artistic pursuits for the head of the household, as well as a place to escape from the mundane concerns and duties of his job as a government official. In this private place, he might practice calligraphy or painting while enjoying his collection of art objects used and treasured by past scholars. Amid his books and hanging scrolls, he might entertain similar gentlemen, sipping tea or wine while composing poetry or playing the chin-a stringed musical instrument. He might pass his leisure hours enjoying the songs of small birds, kept in beautifully constructed wooden cages. Or in autumn, he might gather crickets and keep them in ornate cages. To encourage them to chirp, he might delicately tickle them with tiny brushes. These pleasant pastimes, enjoyed alone or with friends, took place in the scholar's library, where it was easy to forget about the difficulties and concerns of daily life. |:|

“Despite the essentially Confucian framework of the society in which the educated literatus lived and worked, with its strong emphasis on family responsibility, moral codes, formal education, and bureaucratic service, the ideal of spiritual solace which encouraged the quiet, contemplative life of a recluse sprang mostly from Taoist teachings. Nature, with its balanced forces, was represented by the rock gardens and the natural materials typically associated with the library and scholar's desk. The careful choice of aesthetic surroundings, including items of contemplation, elegantly-proportioned minimally decorated hardwood furniture, symbolic rocks from Lake T'ai, rare books, and rustic antiques were carefully selected, studied, and displayed in support of the scholar's intellectual mission and personal taste. |:|

“The educated merchant class and many scholars of the Chiang-nan region—from which this library comes—created an economic and cultural climate in which the arts could flourish. Private libraries and gardens were essential to the production of some of the most original and important literati art of the Ming and early Ch'ing dynasties. The two character tile plaque set into the garden wall reads "Pursuing Harmony," while an ink inscription on a ceiling beam calls this room "The Studio of Gratifying Discourse."” |:|

Chinese Scholar's Inkstones and Brushpots

study of the famed Tang poet Du Fu

According to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: “Amongst the "Four Treasures" of the scholar's studio: ink, brush, paper, and inkstone, it was the inkstone that was the most prized possession of a learned gentleman. While created for the mundane purpose of grinding inksticks, scholars nevertheless found deep spiritual meaning in these stones, which they felt embodied the essence of heaven and earth and represented a microcosm of the universe. Treasured inkstones were often inscribed with poetry or prose, which forms part of the connoisseurship of the object in addition to the natural aesthetic qualities of the stone and decorative carvings of the craftsman. [Source: Minneapolis Institute of Arts |:|]

“Inscriptions on inkstones will often echo the mysterious interaction of water and ink with stone in bringing forth the written characters that defined poetic thoughts and visualized painted images. The T'ang poet Li Ho (790-816) in commenting on the prized, purple colored Tuan stone used in the best inkstones commented: “The stone craftsmen of Tuan-chou are as skilled as the gods, (they) stepped up to the sky, sharpened their knives and cut the purple clouds.” |:|

“The ink used by Chinese scholars for painting and calligraphy was traditionally made in the form of dry ink sticks that were ground with water on the ink stone to produce liquid ink. This allowed the artist total control over the density, texture, and quality of their ink and, by extension, the textural and tonal variations of ink by which their work would be judged. Made chiefly from pine soot (lamp black) and water-soluble animal adhesive, solid ink sticks were highly portable and could be kept almost indefinitely without losing their effectiveness. They could also be moulded in a variety of shapes and colors, complete with pictorial designs and inscriptions. Some of the fanciest ink cakes to survive were commemorative objects. Produced by special order and offered as gifts or to commemorate special events, they eventually became collector items. The use of ink can be traced to the Neolithic era and the earliest ink stick excavated to date was found in a third century B.C. tomb. |:|

“During Ming and early Ch'ing, brush pots used by the literati were made of wood, bamboo, porcelain, lacquer, and even jade. The preference, however, seems to have been for objects done in so-called "organic taste" where the mellow colors of carved bamboo, unusual grains of waxed hardwood, and the natural forms found in nature, like those shown here, were most appreciated. Used to store brushes, brush pots, like ink stones, were an important symbol of a scholar's refinement and, as with many scholar's objects, they were often decorated with appropriate literati subject matter. Inscribed with poetry as well as the signatures and seals of their makers, those made of bamboo became highly collectible. |:|

“Naturally occurring timber and root, if it had an unusual form or pleasing grain, could be used much as it was found. This taste for the "natural" resulted in some brush pots, scroll holders, and other scholar's objects being carved from precious hardwoods like tz'u-tan in close imitation of humbler materials like gnarled root and bamboo. "Organic taste" literati objects reflected the quiet simplicity and contemplative aspect of a scholar's existence and emphasized his communion with nature.” |:|

Cricket Ticklers and Scholar's Rocks

cricket paraphernalia

According to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: Of all insects, the cricket has intrigued the Chinese like no other. Artists, scholars and peasants alike have kept them as pets for over a thousand years. Valued for their melodic chirping and instinctive fighting abilities, the Chinese had developed a special literature on the subject of crickets with a cult following by the 13th century. [Source: Minneapolis Institute of Arts |:|]

“During the winter months, crickets were typically kept in specially prepared gourds that had been grown in ceramic molds, thereby achieving their artificial shapes and decoration. Several molded gourd cricket containers, each with carved openwork ivory, tortoise shell or horn covers are part of the collection. A tickler was used to incite crickets to sing. Fine hair or rat whiskers are inserted into a wood, bamboo or ivory handle for this purpose. Other paraphernalia included ceramic feeding trays, cage cleaning brushes, tweezers and ceramic summer cages. |:|

“The Chinese term kung-shih is generally translated as "scholar's rock" or "spirit stone" in the west. Indeed, traditional Chinese literati greatly appreciated the spiritual aspects of certain types of stones, and the deep Taoist symbolism and love of mountains that was associated with them. From the T'ang dynasty (618-906) onwards, literati collected "spirit stones" for their libraries and gardens believing that rocks of unusual form found in their natural state contained spiritual qualities and represented the forces of nature. |:|

“Unlike garden stones, scholar's rocks are displayed primarily for indoor appreciation and contemplation, usually in the library. Numerous men of letters showed an inexhaustible delight in rare rocks, and the sizeable literature devoted to rocks and rock collecting in China includes inscribed paintings, collection catalogues, poems, essays, and other prose works. More than anything it was the abstract formal qualities of unusual stones that appealed to the Chinese literati. Connoisseurs admire attenuated proportions that might recall soaring mountain peaks, deeply textured surfaces that suggest great age, strange profiles that evoke animals or the grandeur of nature, and curious perforations that create rhythmic harmonious patterns. |:|

“The widespread use of custom wooden stands for the display of scholar's rocks during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) indicates the literati had come to value their studio rocks much the same as their collected antiques. While most nineteenth and twentieth century collectors believed their pieces were shaped entirely by nature, most scholar's rocks were enhanced through some degree of carving.” |:|

Three Perfections and Scholar-Official Painting

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The life of the educated man involved more than study for the civil service examinations and service in office. Many took to refined pursuits such as collecting antiques or old books and practicing the arts — especially poetry writing, calligraphy, and painting (“the three perfections”). For many individuals these interests overshadowed any philosophical, political, or economic concerns; others found in them occasional outlets for creative activity and aesthetic pleasure. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Scholar by a waterfall by Song-era artist May Yuan

In the Song period the engagement of the elite with the arts led to extraordinary achievement in calligraphy and painting, especially landscape painting. But even more people were involved as connoisseurs. A large share of the informal social life of upper-class men was centered on these refined pastimes, as they gathered to compose or criticize poetry, to view each other’s treasures, or to patronize young talents.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “During the middle of the Northern Song scholars began to take up painting as one of the arts of the gentleman, viewing it as comparable to poetry and calligraphy as means for self expression. Brushwork in painting, by analogy to brushwork in calligraphy, was believed to express a person's moral character. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“The scholars who took up painting generally preferred to use more individualistic and less refined styles of brushwork. These styles were relatively easier to master by those already familiar with the brush from calligraphy, and did not require the years of exacting training needed to succeed as a professional or court artist. /=\

“The eminent poet and statesman Su Shi (1037-1101) explicitly rejected the attempt to capture appearance as beneath the scholar. Paintings should be understated, not flashy. His painting of Rock and Old Tree, executed with a dry brush, exhibits rough qualities and does not aim at pleasure. The painting is more akin to an exercise aiming to improve and develop calligraphic skill than the sorts of paintings done by contemporary court painters. Emphasizing subjectivity, Su Shi said that painting and poetry share a single goal, that of effortless skill. /=\

“Scholar painters were not necessarily amateur painters, and many scholars painted in highly polished styles. This was particularly true in the case of paintings of people and animals, where scholar-painters developed the use of the thin line drawing but did not in any real sense avoid "form likeness" or strive for awkwardness, the way landscapists often did. One of the first literati to excel as a painter of people and animals was Li Konglin in the late Northern Song. A friend of Su Shi and other eminent men of the period, he also painted landscapes and collected both paintings and ancient bronzes and jades. Figures done with a thin line, rather than a modulated one, were considered plainer and more suitable for scholar painters.” /=\

Su Shi (Su Dongpo)—the Quintessential Scholar-Official-Poet

Su Shi

Perhaps the best example of a scholar-official with strong interests in the arts is Su Shi (1036-1101). Su Shi had a long career as a government official in the Northern Song. After performing exceptionally well in the examinations, Su Shi became something of a celebrity. Throughout his life he was a superb and prolific writer of both prose and poetry. Because he took strong stands on many controversial political issues of his day, he got into political trouble several times and was repeatedly banished from the capital. Twice he was exiled for his sharp criticisms of imperial policy. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Su was one of the most noted poets of the Northern Song period. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Best known as a poet, Su was also an esteemed painter and calligrapher and theorist of the arts. He wrote glowingly of paintings done by scholars, who could imbue their paintings with ideas, making them much better than paintings that merely conveyed outward appearance, the sorts of paintings that professional painters made.”

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Su Shih is probably perhaps best known to Western audiences by his pen name, Su Tung-p'o. Born in 1036, five emperors came to the throne during his lifetime. Eleventh-century China, however, was a period of great political instability. The bitter rivalry between revisionist and conservative factions at court made a political career precarious. For Su Shih, known for his sharp wit and stubborn personality, it was even more difficult. However, the ups and downs of his life and career provided constant inspiration in his art and writing, for which he is so highly regarded by later generations.” It has now been almost 900 years since Su Shih passed away in 1101. Although his writings were once blacklisted, even destroyed, his genius could not be repressed. His poetry and writing have been reprinted, studied, and enjoyed by generations since. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

Life of Su Shi (Su Dongpo)

Calligraphy by Su Shi

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Su Shi, “also known as Zhizhang and Resident of Tong Po, is native of Meishan of Sichuan, and was an imperial scholar in the 2nd Year of Chia You (1057). His life may well be categorized into several distinctive stages. The first stage began in 1057 when he composed during the civil examinations the essay Hsing-shang Chung-hou Chih-chih Lun, a treatise on loyalty and generosity in punishments and rewards, which earned the chief examiner Ou-yang Hsiu's admiration. Decorated a chin-shih, Su Shih became a public official, and remained on the path of ascendance in the bureaucracy until his father's death, after which he returned to his hometown in Sze-chuan to observe a period of mourning. This stage is distinguished by Su's ambitious work for the government and his vibrant artistry and prolific discourses. Notable works from this time include twenty-five chin-tse's (policy essays) and Ssu-chi Lun, a work on the administration of government, which were characterized by progressive and critical incisiveness. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

“The second stage spanned from 1069 to 1079. After returning to the capital following the mourning of his father's death, Su Shih was arrested and jailed for a total of eleven years for his satirical poems criticizing the government's radical reform measures. It was during this time that Wang An-shih's New Policies were gaining prominence. To Emperor Shen-tsung Su presented a ten-thousand-word report in which he openly expressed his opposition to the reforms, which resulted in repeated demotions to insignificant provincial posts and exile to such places as Hangchou, Michou, Huchou and Hsuchou. Eventually he was banished to Huangchou. \=/

“The third stage of Su Shi’s life “is noted by the three years (1080-1083) that Su Shih spent in Huangchou, which represented a pivotal point in his life. Not only did he begin in earnest to consider the meaning of human existence, but also came to enjoy the pleasures of life from farming and writing. During this stage in life he wrote several of his most admired pieces, including Ch'ih-pi Fu (Ode to the Red Cliff), Han-shi T?ie (The Cold Food Observance), Nien-nu-chiao (Recalling Her Charms), Ting-feng-p'o (Stilling Wind and Waves), and Lin-chiang-hsien (Immortal by the River), as well as a great number of poems. These works seem to have come from the comfortable apposition of elegant artistry with the very ordinary events as experienced by one who was very much at peace with himself. \=/

“The fourth stage in Su Shih's life began in the year of 1085, when he was summoned to return to the capital. For the eight years that followed he served in the imperial court, during which he gained the favor of the Empress Dowager Kao, who was in effect ruling the country, and was appointed to the Hanlin Imperial Academy as an attendant academician. While his political career flourished, Su came up with very few thought-provocative works; apart from poetic inscriptions on paintings, his works largely comprised poetic compositions in the socializing vein. It appears that in the case of Su Shih the advancement in career had not been accompanied by comparable progress in artistry. \=/

“With the passing of Empress Dowager Kao and Emperor Che-tsung's assuming real power, Su Shih was obliged to go once more into the provinces. Accused of having spoken disrespectfully of the emperors, Su was banished to the island of Hainan, a region which was utterly barbarious and unknown. Rather than lamenting his diminishing fortunes, Su Shih derived greater strength and acquired broader perspectives from adversity. In fact, Su was able to articulate in his compositions complex and deep emotions, and to arrive at a new realm of creativity through his observation of common souls and ordinary things.” \=/

Political Career of Su Shi

document written by Su Shi

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Su Shih (sobriquet Tzu-han, also known by the pen name of Tung-p'o chu-shih), by virtue of his prominence, was drawn into the power struggle between reformers led by Wang An-shih and conservative forces. On the one hand, his very nature had made it impossible for him to fall tamely in step with the reforms espoused by Wang; on the other, Su found it difficult to abide uncritically with the inclinations of the old guard. He was thus compelled to tread a circuitous path through the political intrigue of his time. Such experiences also elicited the complexity and diversity so characteristic of his philosophy and artistry. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

“Su's tumultuous career began around 1079, when he wrote a satirical poem on the New Policies promoted by Prime Minister Wang An-shih, who was infuriated and had Su arrested. Su served time in jail and was later released, but the following year he was banished to Huang-chou in the southern hinterlands. This proved to be a major turning point in his life. Beforehand, Su was a free and spirited personality, and his poetry was full of insight and energy. However, having barely escaped with his life and being banished to the harsh region of the south, he began to reflect on the beauty of nature and the meaning of life. In exile, he enjoyed the simple pleasures of farming and writing, taking joy in what life had to offer. In fact, many of his most popular works were done at the time. Though Su was later pardoned, he was never far from controversy. Even as an old man, he was banished to the furthest reaches of the land--Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The experience, however, only further enlightened him. Though pardoned once again, this time he did not make it back to court and died on the trip north. \=/

“In the factional struggles of the Northern Sung, Wang An-shih and Su Shih were in two opposing camps. Of differing personalities and political opinions, Wang was determined and intolerant while Su was straightforward and open-minded. With both serving at court, confrontation was inevitable. However, when Wang An-shih retired as prime minister and moved to Chin-ling, Su Shih had an opportunity to travel with him. Despite their differences, they looked back on old times and had a true meeting of the minds.” \=/

Su Shi, the Poet-Artist

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Su Shi “holds a particularly revered position in Chinese literary history, and ranks as one of the Four Song Masters in calligraphy, while being the first scholar to create the scholar painting in Chinese painting history. He is one of the most important literary masters in the Northern Song period. Su had a very unstable career as a government official, and was exiled from court that resulted from the Wutai Poem Incident to Huangzhow in the 2nd Year of Yuan Feng (1079). This marked a turning point in his life and work, and the Former and Latter Odes to the Red Cliff were representative works from this period.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

art by Su Shi

“Traditional critiques of Su Shih's calligraphy indicate that he often held the brush at an angle, producing characters that appeared somewhat abbreviated and thin. However, Su himself once wrote that "Plump and elegant as well as thin and tough (characters) both have their advantages." The characters here appear even and introverted, not abbreviated or unharmonious, making this a masterpiece of Su Shih's calligraphy. \=/

“Su Shih derived considerable joy throughout his life from the literary arts. However, the views that he expressed in his prose and poetry often got him into trouble. Even as an old man, it is said that he was exiled to the most remote southern locale of Hainan simply because of a line of his poetry was construed as mocking an enemy of his. Even in exile, however, Su Shih wrote to keep himself busy. \=/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.