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Treasures of the Chinese Scholar

Dates: February 3, 2001–May 6, 2001

For thousands of years Chinese scholars were primarily men, greatly esteemed by their society, who were also collectors of high quality, highly sophisticated art objects—some functional, some inspirational, most small enough to decorate a scholar’s desk or complement his study.

Treasures of the Chinese Scholarfeatures 168 selections of extraordinary “scholar art”—calligraphy, painting, and works of art in wood, lacquer, ivory, stone, horn, and metal—from as early as the Zhou dynasty (770–256 BC) through the Qing dynasty (AD 1644–1911).

The traditional Chinese scholar spent years studying the ancient classics and philosophical treatises while immersing himself in the moral principles of Confucianism. These pursuits prepared the scholar for a rigorous Civil Service Examination. Passing this examination allowed him to enter government service, which was a key to a life of privilege, social status, politics, and aesthetics.

In the studio the scholar isolated himself from others, finding the calm necessary for study and contemplation. It was in the studio that he studied Confucian classics, wrote poetry, played music, practiced calligraphy, and perhaps painted. Objects important in the pursuit of these activities included writing utensils and desk accessories. There were also objects used for making and serving tea, a beverage thought to stimulate intellectual and social discourse. And there were decorative objects for the scholar as well. While these pieces appear to have either a utilitarian or decorative purpose, they also provided philosophical and moral inspiration through their symbolic content.

The objects in Treasures of the Chinese Scholar—including the “treasures” created for scholars and with which they surrounded themselves, such as brushes, inkstones, water droppers, toggles, figurines, and scholar’s rocks—represent the pinnacle of an art form that was refined over thousands of years by Chinese artisans. More than mere art curios, these objects embody the highest degree of technical precision and a finely honed aesthetic sensibility. As such, they embodied the shared wisdom, traditions, and values of the Chinese literati who governed China for more than two millennia.

Treasures of the Chinese Scholar and the accompanying catalog examine in detail the form, function, and symbolism of some of the finest surviving scholar art.


The exhibition is presented in thematic sections, providing viewers with an opportunity to see the diversity of objects collected by the scholar:

  • Brush and Ink (tools and materials used in scholarly pursuits)
  • Animal Motifs
  • Figure Portrayal
  • Nature in Motifs and Materials
  • Related Collectibles

In addition, examples of scholar studio furniture from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries (Ming and Qing Dynasties), including chairs, chests, tables, and folding screens, are displayed. These provide insight into the look and feel of the Chinese scholar’s private study.


The tools of the scholar, the “four treasures” distinguishing him from the common tradesman, were those of writing-brush, inkstone, ink, and paper. The scholar hoped to become proficient in the art of poetry, painting, and, most importantly, calligraphy—the “three perfections.” Brushes, inkstones, paper weights, wrist rests, and other related paraphernalia became coveted items in the scholar’s study as reproduction of these items reached a high level of refinement—and many of these items are displayed in the Brush and Ink section.


Animal representations, real and mythical, rich in symbolic meaning, have been an important part of Chinese art from the earliest periods. The Animal Motifs section features the ever-popular dragon, carved in ivory or decorating a brush rest in jade. There are rams, of celadon stoneware (Jin dynasty, AD 265–480) and ivory (Qing dynasty, eighteenth century), a rabbit gracing a Song dynasty (AD 960–1279) water dropper, and a cat, quail, magpie, carp, lion, and butterflies—decorating objects or standing as objects themselves.


Human figures were depicted in Chinese art as early as the late Neolithic period (beginning late fourth millenium BC). Immortals, from a seated Buddha to Guandi, the God of War, carved in ivory, bamboo, boxwood or jade, depicted in porcelain or cast in bronze, are featured in the Figure Portrayal section.


The theme of nature is everywhere in Chinese art, as aspects of nature permeate the life of the Chinese in philosophy, religion, art, architecture, medicine, and in the reality of providing food for an immense population. Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, the three main formal religions of China, stress man’s oneness with nature. In the scholar’s study, both materials from nature (such as Imperial Lingzhi fungus, Qianlong period, AD 1736–1795) and art objects symbolic of or depicting nature, are frequently found.


The Section of Related Collectibles presents a variety of items collected by the scholar, an avid collector and cataloger of objects that were historically or culturally significant to him. Here are all manner of carved lacquer boxes and trays, a teapot of carved ivory, ruyi scepters of ivory and zitan wood with tortoise shell, and porcelain and bronze vessels.

Curated by Dr. John Fong.

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