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Chinese Scholar's Study

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. . ."

key idea
The arts helped literati scholars absorb the lessons of nature.

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.

The shapes of scholars' painting tools often reflected their interest in nature, like this waterdropper in the shape of a lotus bud.
October 2004