S. Song Guan
A Southern Song brush washer

On 24 June SEACS held its first members’ ‘Sharing Session’ via ZOOM, an e-based communications platform. Forty-eight members attended (virtually), from as far away as Scotland and Australia. Our topic was ‘wenren ceramics’ (or those ceramics that might have been used or appreciated in a Chinese scholars’ studio.

We opened the evening with a short presentation on some of the basics of the topic, reminding our members that we were participating in an experience (gathering to discuss items from our collections) once enjoyed by literati circles throughout China’s history.

The question was asked: What qualified scholars to make judgments concerning the quality of the artefacts they were judging? As one academic noted (Elisabetta Corsi), “These educated elite, by the time of the Ming Dynasty–the height of the culture of the literati–could best be described as ‘amateurs’.” 

Because their culture was based on poetry, painting and calligraphy, they were “amateurs in administration because they were trained to appreciate art, and they were amateurs as regards art, because their profession was ‘administration’.” So for those who needed assistance, being amateurs, there arose a need for ‘guidance’ – launching at regular intervals, guidebooks.

The oldest known text in this category dates to the 10th century, written by a Song Dynasty, Hanlin academician. He was admired by the Emperor Taizong for his literary talent and thus appointed to several gov’t posts. His text (Wénfáng Sibao) includes past textual references & poems dedicated to the ‘Four Treasures  of the Scholar’s Studio’ — Brush – ink – inkstone – paper.

During the late Ming there was a proliferation of writing on collecting and connoisseurship. “Ideally,” wrote James Watt in an article  on “The Literati Environment”, “the late Ming literati would have liked to disappear into the dao, freed of all external encumbrances. Nevertheless, they lived in busy cities…happiest in each other’s company… where they began to collect antiquities.” [The Chinese Scholar’s Studio, p. 7]

A few centuries later [late Ming] … when the “multiplicity of things had a central role in Chinese culture…[they were] categorized…listed…ranked…praised…[and had] become an issue of some intellectual concern”  [Clunas, Superfluous Things, pp 92-3]. There grew an understood set of rules of style and taste” [Watt, p5]. These ‘rules’ were sometimes written down … the most important and comprehensive was published in 1637 by Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645) … a well-known literatus who committed suicide when his world fell apart as the Ming Dynasty fell to Manchu invaders.His categories and criteria were presented, and we learned that the preferred ceramics were, not surprisingly, the famous five from the Song Dynasty: Ding, Ru, Guan, Ge and Jun.

And so we came to seven of our members’ selections (a few of them are pictured below), which were presented to the group. Take a look below and decide whether or not they fit the criteria once summed up as: “always a combination of material, form, colour and finishing that determined an object’s legitimacy as worthy of literati attention” (Eng Lee Seok Chee, Ceramics of Scholarly Taste). And be sure to join us for our second sharing session on 29 July.

Click here to see some of the visuals that accompanied the introductory talk.


Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.

James Watt in The Chinese Scholar’s Studio: Artistic Life in the Late Ming, NY: Asia Society Galleries, 1987.

Eng-Lee Seok Chee, “Passions and Pursuits of the Chinese Scholar”, Ceramics in Scholarly Taste, Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 1993, pp. 16-40.

The Ge gu yao lun by Cao Zhao was the focus of Sir Percival David’s seminal study Chinese Connoisseurship: The Essential Criteria of Antiquities, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.

Elisabetta Corsi, “Scholars and Paper-Makers: Paper and Paper-Manufacture According to Tu Long’s Notes on Paper”, Rivista degli studi orientali, Vol. 65, Fasc. 1/2 (1991), pp. 69-107.  A study based on the treatise “Zhi mo bi yan jian, A note on paper, ink, brush and inkslab found in the work on art collecting and the accoutrement of the fashionable literatus called Kaopan yushi, Desultory notes (on the equipment) of the literatus’s abode.”