Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Lotus Flowers in a Wood Vase: History of Scholar Objects

      The history of scholar objects
            Chinese scholars were most often members of the Jinshi. Due to their excellence on the civil service exam, scholars often served roles in governmental administration. When granted rest from their bureaucratic duties, scholars often retreated to the libraries or studies located within their homes to seek isolation. It was during these periods of isolation that scholars would pursue their intellectual interests, often including the study of Confucian texts, playing an instrument, practicing calligraphy, or painting. Scholars were compensated well for their governmental duties, and as a result they had excess income that was often used to collect art objects to decorate their studies, creating an environment more conducive to intellectual pursuits. Art collected by scholars included both objects with practical use as well as art with an inspirational purpose.
            Examples of practical art collected by scholars included inkstones, inksticks, brushpots, and cricket paraphernalia. Inkstones were the most prized artistic possessions of Chinese scholars. These stones were used to grind ink, found in solid inksticks, to create liquid ink useable for painting and calligraphy. Scholars formed the ink into liquid themselves giving them complete control over the texture and density of their ink, allowing for greater personal expression within their paintings and calligraphy. Inkstones were often imbued with highly spiritual images and poetry illuminating the importance of scholastic study. Creators of inktones were treated with high esteem in Chinese culture, so much so that they were compared to the gods by the poet Li Ho, who wrote: “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.”[1]
            Chinese scholars were fascinated with the study of crickets. Scholars would often collect crickets and store them in their studies where they would examine the anatomy of the insects as well as the sound of their song. As a result of this fascination, many decorative containers were produced that were used to store a scholar’s crickets. This cricket paraphernalia is a very intriguing part of Chinese culture, and was closely mirrored by a similar fascination and study of birds.
            Of all the scholar objects ours most closely resembles a brush pot. Brush pots were used to store and clean brushes used by the scholar in the creation of paintings and calligraphy. Brush pots were often made from natural materials such as bamboo, hardwood, or interestingly shaped roots. The organic materials used to create these pots symbolized the scholar’s deep connection to nature. The study of Confucianism would naturally lead a scholar to seek this connection with nature. At the core of neo-Confucian thought is the idea of qi, a life force that is present in all living things. Confucian thought did not limit the presence of qi to humans either. Wind was viewed as the qi of the earth, and Confucian scholar Xun Zi described the presence of qi in nature saying, “Fire and water have qi but do not have life. Grasses and trees have life but do not have perceptivity.”[2] Because of the importance of qi in Confucian thought, it was imperative for a scholar to assert his close relationship to all natural things. Possession of organic art was a way to demonstrate this connection. Our piece is undoubtedly an example of an artistic piece used to demonstrate connection to nature and to inspire thought about the natural world. Not only is the piece made of natural materials including wood and root, but it also depicts a natural subject, the lotus flower. It is easy to imagine a Chinese scholar acquiring this art piece in an effort to increase his connection to the natural world through contemplation of the qi present in the nature surrounding him.

[1]  "In This Room - The Art of Asia - Scholar's Library and Study." In This Room - The Art of Asia - Scholar's Library and Study. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://archive.artsmia.org/art-of-asia/architecture/chinese-scholars-study-in-room.cfm. 
[2]  "What Is Qi? | Feng Shui Knowledge." What Is Qi? | Feng Shui Knowledge. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.fengshui-harmony.net/about-feng-shui-basics/37-what-is-qi-chi. 

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