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Chinese Scholar's Study

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.

key idea
The study was one of the most important rooms in the house of a well-educated government official.

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.

A shelf like this one would have held a scholar's collection of rare books, scroll paintings, and antiques.
October 2004