The exceptionally well painted brush pot is decorated with a theme particularly appropriate for an object which would be placed on a scholar's table. The theme is that of the Four Accomplishments of a gentleman-scholar - playing the qin (an unfretted zither with seven strings), playing weiqi chess, painting and calligraphy. It is also interesting to note the physical context in which the activities are set. They appear to take place outside on a balustraded terrace with ornamental rocks, bamboo, plantains, and trees, however there are also two large folding screens - one decorated with a landscape and the other with a seascape. While these screens provide a visually convenient back-drop for two of the groups of figures on the brush-pot, they may also reflect a desire to give the impression of a rural setting. In the first paragraph of his treatise entitled Zhangwu zhi, Superfluous Things, published in 1637, the Ming dynasty literatus and self-appointed arbiter of good taste Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645) noted that it was most preferable to live deep in the countryside, next best being a rural area, third best was the suburbs. If there was no choice but to live in the city, then Wen advised not only that every aspect of the residence should be clean and smart, but that its pavilions should suggest the resident was a man devoid of worldly cares, and its studies should have an ambience suggesting he was a refined recluse. The screens depicted on the current brush-pot may therefore have been intended to suggest the hiding of aspects which might otherwise have revealed a city environment.
While the inclusion of painting and calligraphy as two of the Four Accomplishments is self-explanatory, perhaps the inclusion of qin and chess playing require further elucidation. One of the most popular images of the Chinese literatus is of him playing the qin, which was thought to 'harmonise the soul and purify the mind'. The popularity of the instrument dates back to the time of Confucius (551-479 BC), although the instrument itself may date as far back as the Shang dynasty. Depictions of figures playing the qin had been known on bricks or stone carvings dating to the Eastern Han dynasty, but the excavation of a 7-stringed half box shaped qin from tomb number 3 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, dated to 168 BC, provided physical evidence of its use in the Western Han dynasty.
The literatus Xi Kang (AD 223-262), who was one of the famous 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, is not only credited with being one of the great qin players, he also wrote a poetical essay on the instrument. In the late Ming, although the most prized antique qin were those made by the Lei family of the Tang dynasty, a number of the literati made their own instruments. Thus both the instrument and the music played upon it were expressions of their own personalities.
Weiqi chess, usually called 'Go' in English, was a very popular game amongst the Chinese literati, appreciated for its complexity and subtlety. Traditionally the game is supposed to have been invented by the mythical Emperor Yao (23rs century BC) who devised the game in order to instruct his son Dan Zhu, although Emperor Shun (23rd-22nd century BC) has also been credited with devising the game in order to instruct his son Shang Jun. Weiqi (although apparently under another name, yi) was certainly being played in the time of Confucius, who appears to have disapproved of it, regarding playing the game as only a little better than doing nothing (Analects, Book XVII,22). However, by the Han dynasty weiqi was a subject that interested philosophers and strategic theorists, one of the earliest texts on weiqi strategy being that in Xin lun, New Treatise by Huan Tan (43 BC-AD 28). The game had undoubtedly become very popular by the time the scholar Zhang Hua discussed it in his Bowu zhi (Record of the Investigation of Things) c. AD 270-90. Weiqi is a game of subtle strategies and one of the greatest masters of the game in the Tang dynasty was Wang Jixin, who devised ten strategies for playing, which became the principles by which later players developed their tactics in the game. One of the fascinations for the 17th century literati was undoubtedly the intellectual challenge presented by playing weiqi. It is claimed that, unlike western chess, to date no computer or computer programme has been developed that can best a proficient human weiqi player; a fact that would no doubt have pleased the scholars of the late Ming dynasty.
Compare the Kangxi blue and white baluster vase with very similar scenes which is in the Rijksmuseum, illustrated by Christiaan J. A. Jörg, Chinese Ceramics in the Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, London, 1997, no. 87, pp. 96-7.