Detail from a portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in his study. Image Bridgeman Images

Inside the Chinese scholar’s studio

Scholars’ objects were the luxury goods of their time. And yet, as specialist Tristan Bruck explains, they represented so much more than monetary wealth

Chinese scholar’s objects were, in a sense, the luxury goods of their time, but rather than wealth what they really represented was the physical embodiment of the scholar’s intellectual curiosity and aesthetic taste.

The history of the literati scholar in China dates back to the Tang and Song dynasties (AD 618-907 and AD 960-1279, respectively), when the court implemented meritocratic civil exams for the selection of bureaucratic officials. The tests assessed the candidates’ knowledge and ability in a wide range of subjects, including Confucian thought, law, agriculture, and the arts, especially calligraphy, painting, and music. As such, an entire class of intellectual and artistically trained scholars was created.

During times of political strife or changes in power, certain officials were forced to retire from court life and seek refuge in the remote vastness of the Chinese wilderness. Surrounded by like-minded individuals, they turned their attention to the arts of painting and music, their artistic style more aligned with the surrounding nature and less influenced by the more rigid court style.

The political stability of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1644 and 1644-1911 respectively) meant that fewer court officials were exiled to the wild, but the romantic ideal of the artistic scholar amidst nature nonetheless lived on. In emulation of their predecessors, the literati class built studios surrounded by gardens in the cities and suburbs of the major court centres.

These studios were filled with beautiful painting and calligraphy tools, furniture, musical instruments, implements for preparing and consuming tea and wine, and antiques. Many surviving examples of these works of art from the Ming and Qing dynasties were carried out in precious materials, such as lacquer, cloisonné, gilt-bronze, and the precious woods zitan and huanghuali.

Below, we look at six objects that would have once graced the elegant studio of a Ming or Qing scholar.

  • 1
  • The brush pot

A mother-of-pearl-inlaid huanghuali brush pot. 18th century. 5½ in (14 cm) high. Estimate £10,000-15,000. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art  on 8 November 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £12,500

A mother-of-pearl-inlaid huanghuali brush pot. 18th century. 5½ in (14 cm) high. Estimate: £10,000-15,000. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 8 November 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £12,500

The brush is perhaps the most important object in the scholar’s studio — with it, the scholar could engage in the art of calligraphy and landscape and still-life painting. A simple but nonetheless essential element of the scholar’s studio, the brush pot holds the multitude of upturned brushes required for each.

  • 2
  • The wrist rest

A bamboo double pea pod wrist rest. 18th century. 7⅞ in (20 cm) long, cloth case. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles Part I on 9 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A bamboo 'double pea pod' wrist rest. 18th century. 7⅞ in (20 cm) long, cloth case. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles Part I on 9 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Chinese calligraphy was written vertically from right to left, and so wrist rests would have been used to keep the wrist lifted off the work to prevent smudging or dirtying the work when writing or painting. The shape of a section of cut bamboo lends itself perfectly to balance lightly on the paper while supporting the scholar’s wrist.

  • 3
  • The inkstone

Out of a scholar’s ‘four treasures’ — writing brush, paper, ink and inkstone — the inkstone would have been held in a position of greatest importance. A high-quality inkstone was paramount in ensuring the even grinding of the inkcake, resulting in finer ink, which allowed the scholar to produce brush strokes that would be both technically and aesthetically pleasing.

  • 4
  • The brush washer

A large and rare Duan stone washer. 18th century. 12½ in (31.6 cm) long. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art  on 8 November 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £18,750

A large and rare Duan stone washer. 18th century. 12½ in (31.6 cm) long. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 8 November 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £18,750

Brush washers were used for removing excess ink from the brush and are essential tools in the traditional art of Chinese calligraphy and painting. These functional objects were often made into beautiful works of art through exquisite design and the use of precious materials, such as zitan, jade and porcelain.

  • 5
  • The scroll pot

A large huanghuali scroll pot. 19th century. 12½ in (31.5 cm) diam. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art  on 8 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

A large huanghuali scroll pot. 19th century. 12½ in (31.5 cm) diam. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 8 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

The idealised environment for the literati required the regulated display of scrolls in the scholar’s studio. These would be interchanged and as a result the scroll pot played a functional role as well as an aesthetic one in the studio. Trunk-form brush and scroll pots were popular during the Qing dynasty, perhaps due to their rustic sense of the natural world. 

  • 6
  • Objects for admiration

Scholar’s rocks are characterised as stones that the Chinese scholar displayed and appreciated indoors — and this bamboo-root sculpture simulates a scholar’s rock. The scholar’s table would also be decorated with smaller objects and sculptures which could be carefully placed on display stands to set them apart as works of art to be admired.

  • 7
  • The scroll weight

As well as the creation of the ‘three perfections’ — poetry, paintings, and calligraphy — a key aspect of life as a literati was the appreciation and study of these pursuits. Scroll weights would have been used to weigh down a paper scroll, allowing the scholars to quietly reflect on the contents before them.

  • 8
  • The brush

A pale celadon and creamy russet jade mountain-form brush rest. 18th century. 6 in (15.2 cm) wide, wood stand. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles Part II on 11 November 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £1,750

A pale celadon and creamy russet jade mountain-form brush rest. 18th century. 6 in (15.2 cm) wide, wood stand. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles Part II on 11 November 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £1,750

The brush is perhaps the most important object in the scholar’s studio; with it, the scholar may engage in the art of calligraphy and landscape and still-life painting.

  • 9
  • The table screen

A Longquan celadon xiniu and moon table screen. Ming dynasty (1368-1644). 7⅛ in (18.2 cm) high. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles Part II on 11 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A Longquan celadon 'xiniu and moon' table screen. Ming dynasty (1368-1644). 7⅛ in (18.2 cm) high. This lot was offered in Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art and Textiles Part II on 11 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

The table screen is placed on the painting table in front of the window, protecting the desk from drafts of wind and shielding wet ink from the sun.