In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literati Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources

Chinese Studies Literati Culture
Stephen Roddy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0169


Although the term literati culture (wenren wenhua) entered the Chinese lexicon only in the late 20th century, the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual pursuits it encompasses can be traced back nearly two millennia to the Wei-Jin era (220–420 CE). In its narrowest sense, it denotes the “four arts” (siyi) associated with cultured, literate males (wenren): music (especially the qin or guqin), the game of go (weiqi), calligraphy, and painting, as well as poetry and lyrical essays (especially xiaopin) associated with them. Literati culture is also usually construed to include connoisseurship of various categories of material objects, including tea and its implements, antique paintings and specimens of calligraphy, celebrated or rare manuscripts and book editions, rubbings taken from steles, ancient bronze vessels, and objets d’art associated with writing, such as ink stones or seals. During the mature phase of literati culture in the late Ming and Qing dynasties, this repertoire of practices further widened to include, inter alia, the collecting of any manner of rare or prized objects (both natural and man-made), garden design and architecture, the connoisseurship of the theater and its actors or other entertainers, and the espousal of philosophical ideals associated with leisure or reclusion. Given this expansive scope, scholarship has tended to treat this array of arts and avocations either through disciplinary lenses such as art history and material culture, or in terms of their associations with the principal intellectual vocations—literature (the so-called wenyuan or Garden of Literature) and textual scholarship (rulin or Forest of Scholarship)—that marked literati status. As the relatively elastic conception of literati culture has gained currency, however, cultural historians have increasingly studied these arts within the continuum of socioeconomic practices that marked membership in the elite, and also in light of the position of these arts in relation to more-demotic (tongsu) cultural forms. The growth of literati avocations and the writings about them after c. 1500 was stimulated by the surfeit of first- and second-tier examination holders, along with opportunities for patronage by wealthy merchants in the Yangzi delta region. Also evident in the late Ming and throughout the Qing is the influence of philological scholarship (kaozheng) on the classification or cataloguing of objects of various kinds. Finally, the statecraft-oriented (jingshi) scholarship and letters that flourished during the last century of Qing rule, and critiques of literati social preeminence relative to other vocations and social categories, stimulated the rethinking of the social and cultural institutions that perpetuated their dominance, which extended to the arts associated with the literati as well.

General Overviews

Due no doubt to the absence of a precise or even a widely agreed-upon definition of literati culture, to date no authoritative survey of its overall history or general contours has been attempted. Nonetheless, the studies of various aspects of literati culture in this section are comprehensive enough to serve as useful guides to the field. For a very readable summary of the long history of the four arts, see Zhou and Gu 2003. Hong 1946 similarly provides a temporally expansive survey of literati lifestyles and their connections with the arts, beginning in the Han dynasty; Ke 2004 closely follows this same format but limits its scope to the millennium or so from the Tang through the Qing dynasties. Takabatake 1998 traces the evolution of literati values in the all-important domain of calligraphy and other visual media. Bu 1992 is especially good for literary renderings of literati pursuits, using works such as Honglou meng to great effect. Gong 2004 also relies heavily on literary sources, including a number from the twilight of traditional literati society in the early 20th century. Song 2004 is a good source on the ramifications for sexuality and gender roles of literati cultural and societal aspirations. Meng 1997 presents a compelling case for understanding correlations between career paths and literati artistic developments, while Elman 2000 remains unsurpassed for its painstakingly thorough description of the examination system itself. Arai 1994 is still the most comprehensive yet compact, lucid account of literati as a cultural and social formation, from the Tang to the Qing dynasties.

  • Arai Ken 荒井健, ed. Chūka bunjin no seikatsu (中華文人の生活). Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1994.

    This is an accessible introduction to the broad spectrum of literati lifestyles, ranging from the mundane necessities of daily life to the arts, philosophy, and social networks.

  • Bu Ding 布丁. Wenren qingqu de zhihui (文人情趣的智慧). Hangzhou, China: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe, 1992.

    Though written in a lively, relaxed style for a nonscholarly audience, this erudite work is a treasure trove of literary references to literati arts and culture from the Han dynasty to the early 1990s.

  • Elman, Benjamin. A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

    A magisterial overview of the examination system in its mature phase during the Ming and Qing periods; it provides details on the formal requirements and subjects of essays, the major exegetical and curricular changes that affected essay composition, and also the relative weighting of the different sections of the examinations in determining success and failure. It is arguable that interpreting literati aesthetics should be grounded in a basic understanding of the examinations in the formation of elite sensibilities.

  • Gong Pengcheng 龚鵬程. Zhongguo wenren jieceng shilun (中国文人阶层史论). Lanzhou, China: Lanzhou daxue chubanshe, 2004.

    A lengthy but selective history of literati values and lifestyles during the Ming and Qing dynasties, including chapters on talent, literary skill, scholarship, actors, food and drink, prostitution, and everyday life, using sources ranging from fiction, poetry, and biji, to memoirs and historical accounts of late Qing Taipei and Shanghai.

  • Hong Weifa 洪為法. Tan wenren (談文人). Shanghai: Yongxiang yinshuguan, 1946.

    This slim but insightful, highly readable volume gives an overview of sixteen eccentric artists and writers from the Han to the Qing Dynasties, anticipating (Ke 2004; see below) in both conception and format.

  • Ke Ping 柯平. Yinyanglian: Zhongguo chuantong zhishifenzi shengtai kaocha (阴阳脸:中国传统知识份子生态考察). Beijing: Dongfang chubanshe, 2004.

    Biographical sketches of sixteen eccentric literati figures from the Tang to the late Qing, focusing on their social lives, and especially the literary gatherings (wenhui) through which they wielded influence over their contemporaries.

  • Meng Guanglin 孟广林. Aotu wenxiin (凸凹文心). Beijing: Gaige chubanshe, 1997.

    This is a general introduction to the socioeconomic factors influencing literati lifestyles, including the examination system, and the importance of alternative careers for the educated in commerce or artisanal production. It also discusses the role of Neo-Confucian philosophy in setting the parameters of public life, and the uses of dissent.

  • Song, Geng. The Fragile Scholar: Power and Masculinity in Chinese Culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004.

    Drawing mostly on narrative and dramatic literary sources, and basing his analysis on the conceptually fluid, gender-indeterminate continuum of yin/yang polarity, Song explores both the cultural and the sexual construction of literati masculinity.

  • Takabatake Tsunenobu 高畑常信. Chūgoku bunjin no shisō to geijutsu (中国文人の思想と芸術). Musashino, Japan: Akiyama shoten, 1998.

    This work focuses on calligraphy, seal carving, and monochrome ink bamboo painting to demonstrate how these arts reflect and embody the ideals and values of the literati.

  • Zhou Tieqiang 周铁強 and Gu Hongyi 顾宏义. Wenren siji (文人四技). Guangzhou, China: Guangdong jiaoyu chubanshe, 2003.

    This is a brief overview of the four literati arts, told mainly through anecdotes about famous practitioners and their ideas, as well as social interactions among such figures. It is an excellent summary both of these arts and also of the relationships between them.

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