Chinese scholars needed scholars# treasures to improve their social status. More importantly, they collected to facilitate progress in their work and to elevate their spirits. As antiquarians, scholars avidly collected and cataloged objects that were historically and culturally significant. Reflected in the elegant and exquisite objects that inhabited their studios were diverse ideas, ideals and artistic theories as varied as the interests of the individuals. In alt cases the objects they collected explored the mind, eye and creative instinct, Their appreciation and creation of art objects were judged according to subtle and complex standards unknown to those outside their inner circle. The concepts guiding the Chinese scholars in their careful selection were part of an age-old tradition that stretched from the very early history of China. The diverse strains of this long intellectual tradition crystallized into a coherent body of ideas during the early seventeenth century (the late Ming dynasty), when collecting became permissible after a I tong imperial prohibition.
The relationships between nature and man, between objects and scholars were not simply utilitarian, but suggest a spiritual self-identification, a seeking of "oneness" with the forces that move universe. These implications are the foundation of an aesthetic taste regarding art and nature that mirrored the scholars' thinking - For the Chines scholar there was no contradiction of an object's virtue in being both functional and sculptural. The active and the passive, the difficult and the facile, the balanced and the unbalanced are viewed as complementary and not antithetical (Yin-Yang). These polarities in thought life and art reflect the Chinese scholars' reconciliation to that which most Western minds seem opposed.
Through all their pursuits, it is clear the Chinese scholars were intent on refining and honing their sensibilities. Early on they passionately collected paintings and calligraphy. By the late Ming dynasty, various guidebooks were written which expanded the scholars' connoisseur ship. Li Rihua wrote an interesting list ranking objects that should be collected or enjoyed. In his Artistic Theories of the Literati,
Li's list represents the scholars' general system of values and can be read as a description of the cultural world they inhabited. To begin with, the dream of the typical scholar was to own a large and enviable library of classical writings. Then paintings and calligraphy were pursued. The list goes on to include bronzes, jade, ivory, bamboo, lacquer, ceramics, cloisonne enamel, interesting stones and natural roots, with the archaic preferred over more recent productions. The collecting habit also extended to contemporary carvings of animals, figures and symbolic objects. One constant was that the objects they chose suited the modest dimensions of the scholars' studies.
The scholars referred to their collections as wenwan meaning "toys for the literati." This is reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's aphorism, "Old Boys have their Playthings as well as young Ones; the Difference is only in the Price."
Taoist and Chan Buddhist ideals instilled in the scholars a refined love and appreciation of nature. This led to their preference for materials that were natural and subdued. They disdained silver and gold. Instead they carefully selected objects made of wood, bamboo, gourd, clay, stone or root Each studio accessory was chosen for its individual character, mellow color, unusual grain and sculptural beauty. Every accouterments the scholar chose was meant to complement the quiet simplicity of the "Four Treasures" of the studio. Contained within the wenfang sibao - writing brush, inkstick, inkstone and paper - were all the artistic complexities deemed essential.
Poetry, painting and calligraphy were known as the "Three Perfections," with ink and brush the tools employed to carry out the expression. The inkstone as well as ink sticks lent themselves to beautiful carvings, acquiring artistic value, Paper and brushes were not in themselves considered objects of profound beauty. It was through them that treasures such as paintings and calligraphy were created. The Chinese scholar needed several kinds of brushes for his work depending on whether he wrote a letter, worked on calligraphy or created a painting. Brush rests were among the more common of scholars' accouterments. The mountain brush rest used on the scholars desk to rest the painting or calligraphy brush, generally exhibited five peaks, symbolizing the five sacred mountains of China, thereby inspiring strength and stability.
The inkstone was prominently displayed on the scholars desk for ail to see and judge the taste of its owner. An inkstone would be selected for the texture of its grain as well as the degree of friction created when the ink stick was rubbed onto its surface. Scholars would revel in the sensory qualities of a particular inkstone by exploring its tactile qualities, inhaling its distinctive fragrance and striking it to gauge its degree of resonance. The great respect held for inkstones is evident not only in their decorative embellishment but also in the carved inscriptions indicating ownership. Some inkstones were considered so precious that connoisseurs could not bear to make actual use of them, keeping them for discussion, comparison and appreciation. It should be noted that the earliest inkstones were not made from stone, but rather from bronze or fired clay. Prized were gray pottery tile-ends from the Han dynasty.
Green glazed ware of Song and Ming provenance became popular particularly from the late Ming dynasty onwards, Inkstones made in Yixing from zisha clay were thought to possess just the right degree of abrasiveness and hardness that produced the best consistency of ink and a rich tonal black for writing and painting.
Scholars held very different views on what types of ceramics they wanted to collect Individual taste as well as artistic standards of the day certainly played a part in what was found in their studios. The ceramics collected for study and enjoyment or those made for usage emphasize what the scholar called yu ya (deep elegance). There was a common consensus among connoisseurs that for a ceramic vessel to embody yu ya, it had to embrace the qualities of a simple form and graceful shape in conjunction with a sober yet attractive glaze that was of austere coloration and precluded elaborate or ostentatious decoration.
shape in conjunction with a sober yet attractive glaze that was of austere coloration and precluded elaborate or ostentatious decoration.
Before the aesthetic development of Yixing tea ware, rare and beautiful porcelains were held in great esteem. Prized were the best early Ming dynasty blue-and-white wares. Song dynasty ceramics in particular were accorded special commendation. Song dynasty ceramic imitations of expensive archaic bronzes became acceptable substitutes for the real thing and were greatly admired if they were fresh recreations rather than slavish imitations. Dehua wares from Fujian province were particularly appreciated - Subdued and considered quietly elegant their rich cream-colored glaze is both pleasing to the eye and to the touch. These wares contrasted beautifully with the dark wood of any desk. Celadons and white-glazed Ding wares (rather than red or black) and monochrome Jun wares (as opposed to those with copper red splashes) were also admired. The pale jade-like bluish green glazes and white or light green crackled glazes of Guan and Ge ceramics, made during the Song dynasty, were also considered among the most desirable. The irregular crazing of a glaze was a source of qu. Qu, a word with many meanings, helps us understand the aesthetic subtleties of the scholars' artistic appreciation. If a scholar referred to qu, the suggestion was to delectation, delight, interest, taste and essential meaning. Other key words in this vein are qi, ya, and su. Qi speaks to the unexpected, the unbalanced and that which excites the mind. Ya suggests elegance, refinement or having distinction, whereas su refers to the vulgar, common and unexceptional. The scholars believed that objects, as well as people, should be imbued with a certain degree of "wei," that is, taste, flavor or character, without which both people and objects were considered merely insipid or boring.
The assumption that all Chinese scholars were males would be inaccurate, Although literature concerning scholars is mainly based on the achievements of men, a handful of women scholars did manage to distinguish themselves. In general, the role of women in Chinese society was in service to their husbands and families. Those women who were permitted entry into the world of the school generally had to rely on the support of an influential father, husband or friend in literary or court circles. In that instance they would be allowed to develop their talents in the Four Arts, engaging in these activities without fear of society's reprisals. However, even if they reached a level of prominence, they were most likely denied pursuing the various interests accessible to their male counterparts. There were activities that were frowned upon, especially if the female scholar was married into a conservative family. For example, as a male, wearing her husband's cap and gown while feigning the gait of a man.
There are a number of ceramic objects, especially writing accouterments such as brush holders, vases and the like, that depict women scholars or have an unmistakably feminine feeling. It is impossible to determine if these were made specifically for a female scholar, but it is possible to surmise that a woman would have chosen them for her desk.
Until the advent of Yixing ware, ceramic vessels, although in widespread use as functional articles in the scholar's studio, were not generally among the first things a scholar sought out. The truth is ceramics ranked near the bottom of the list. However, when it came to objects that were intended to contain water, porcelain and stoneware were an imperative and they far outnumbered other materials in the scholars studio, Bamboo, wood or ivory were not appropriate for the task, while metal was too heavy and glass too fragile. Only jade could rival ceramics for this usage, but it was far too expensive, Ritual jades, however, and bronze vessels were eagerly collected. Bronzes were especially valued for their inscriptions that provided historical documentation and evidence of the development of written language. During the Ming dynasty, replicas of archaic bronzes were plentiful and were frequently given as offerings to temples. In the Qing dynasty, archaic bronze shapes were made of porcelain at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen and other kiln sites such as Dehua. The shapes and decoration of archaic bronzes later found their way to the ceramic vessels of Yixing, the most notable of which were made by Chen Mingyuan, who ranks with the greatest of all Yixing potters.
By the end of the Ming dynasty, the imperial court, favoring the blue-and-white and multi-colored porcelains, had decreed the workshops at Jingdezhen as the imperial kilns to the emperor. Yixing ware had just begun to gain the attention of the scholars. The life of simplicity to which many scholars aspired began to draw them to these rustic stonewares. The adoption of Yixing pottery by the scholars was, in part, their rejection of the growing mass production and flamboyance of the imperial kilns. Historically, the scholars rarely took radical measures. They would rather take a passive role due to their fiercely held belief in honor and a sense of loyalty to their rulers. The consideration of any type of ceramic ware other than revered masterworks or porcelains of the present would have been an exceedingly radical action. Scholars were respected as long as they followed the rigid rules of the imperial court. One could be disgraced, exiled or even executed for not obeying them. As standard bearers of artistic expression, they felt compelled to quietly exert their influence and aesthetic sensibilities in what was truly a precious protest.