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Chinese Scholar's Study

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.

key idea
Nature offered a way of understanding the world.

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.

Caged crickets brought the sounds of nature inside. They were kept in decorated containers, like these ones fashioned from gourds.
October 2004