In this Room
A scholar's library or studio was a place to quietly enjoy art, literature, and music. It was a place for intellectual and artistic pursuits for the head of the household, as well as a place to escape from the mundane concerns and duties of his job as a government official. In this private place, he might practice calligraphy or painting while enjoying his collection of art objects used and treasured by past scholars. Amid his books and hanging scrolls, he might entertain similar gentlemen, sipping tea or wine while composing poetry or playing the chin-a stringed musical instrument. He might pass his leisure hours enjoying the songs of small birds, kept in beautifully constructed wooden cages. Or in autumn, he might gather crickets and keep them in ornate cages. To encourage them to chirp, he might delicately tickle them with tiny brushes. These pleasant pastimes, enjoyed alone or with friends, took place in the scholar's library, where it was easy to forget about the difficulties and concerns of daily life.
Amongst the "Four Treasures" of the scholar's studio: ink, brush, paper, and inkstone, it was the inkstone that was the most prized possession of a learned gentleman. While created for the mundane purpose of grinding inksticks, scholars nevertheless found deep spiritual meaning in these stones, which they felt embodied the essence of heaven and earth and represented a microcosm of the universe. Treasured inkstones were often inscribed with poetry or prose, which forms part of the connoisseurship of the object in addition to the natural aesthetic qualities of the stone and decorative carvings of the craftsman.
Inscriptions on inkstones will often echo the mysterious interaction of water and ink with stone in bringing forth the written characters that defined poetic thoughts and visualized painted images. The T'ang poet Li Ho (790-816) in commenting on the prized, purple colored Tuan stone used in the best inkstones commented:
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.
Shown here are various styles of inkstones from different periods in Chinese history.
The ink used by Chinese scholars for painting and calligraphy was traditionally made in the form of dry ink sticks that were ground with water on the ink stone to produce liquid ink. This allowed the artist total control over the density, texture, and quality of their ink and, by extension, the textural and tonal variations of ink by which their work would be judged. Made chiefly from pine soot (lamp black) and water-soluble animal adhesive, solid ink sticks were highly portable and could be kept almost indefinitely without losing their effectiveness. They could also be moulded in a variety of shapes and colors, complete with pictorial designs and inscriptions.
Some of the fanciest ink cakes to survive were commemorative objects. Produced by special order and offered as gifts or to commemorate special events, they eventually became collector items. The use of ink can be traced to the Neolithic era and the earliest ink stick excavated to date was found in a third century B.C. tomb.
During Ming and early Ch'ing, brush pots used by the literati were made of wood, bamboo, porcelain, lacquer, and even jade. The preference, however, seems to have been for objects done in so-called "organic taste" where the mellow colors of carved bamboo, unusual grains of waxed hardwood, and the natural forms found in nature, like those shown here, were most appreciated.
Used to store brushes, brush pots, like ink stones, were an important symbol of a scholar's refinement and, as with many scholar's objects, they were often decorated with appropriate literati subject matter. Inscribed with poetry as well as the signatures and seals of their makers, those made of bamboo became highly collectible.
Naturally occurring timber and root, if it had an unusual form or pleasing grain, could be used much as it was found. This taste for the "natural" resulted in some brush pots, scroll holders, and other scholar's objects being carved from precious hardwoods like tz'u-tan in close imitation of humbler materials like gnarled root and bamboo. "Organic taste" literati objects reflected the quiet simplicity and contemplative aspect of a scholar's existence and emphasized his communion with nature.
Of all insects, the cricket has intrigued the Chinese like no other. Artists, scholars and peasants alike have kept them as pets for over a thousand years. Valued for their melodic chirping and instinctive fighting abilities, the Chinese had developed a special literature on the subject of crickets with a cult following by the 13th century.
During the winter months, crickets were typically kept in specially prepared gourds that had been grown in ceramic molds, thereby achieving their artificial shapes and decoration. Several molded gourd cricket containers, each with carved openwork ivory, tortoise shell or horn covers are part of the collection.
A tickler was used to incite crickets to sing. Fine hair or rat whiskers are inserted into a wood, bamboo or ivory handle for this purpose. Other paraphernalia included ceramic feeding trays, cage cleaning brushes, tweezers and ceramic summer cages.
The Chinese term kung-shih is generally translated as "scholar's rock" or "spirit stone" in the west. Indeed, traditional Chinese literati greatly appreciated the spiritual aspects of certain types of stones, and the deep Taoist symbolism and love of mountains that was associated with them. From the T'ang dynasty (618-906) onwards, literati collected "spirit stones" for their libraries and gardens believing that rocks of unusual form found in their natural state contained spiritual qualities and represented the forces of nature.
Unlike garden stones, scholar's rocks are displayed primarily for indoor appreciation and contemplation, usually in the library. Numerous men of letters showed an inexhaustible delight in rare rocks, and the sizeable literature devoted to rocks and rock collecting in China includes inscribed paintings, collection catalogues, poems, essays, and other prose works.
More than anything it was the abstract formal qualities of unusual stones that appealed to the Chinese literati. Connoisseurs admire attenuated proportions that might recall soaring mountain peaks, deeply textured surfaces that suggest great age, strange profiles that evoke animals or the grandeur of nature, and curious perforations that create rhythmic harmonious patterns.
The widespread use of custom wooden stands for the display of scholar's rocks during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) indicates the literati had come to value their studio rocks much the same as their collected antiques. While most nineteenth and twentieth century collectors believed their pieces were shaped entirely by nature, most scholar's rocks were enhanced through some degree of carving.