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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- 1989 People's Movement
- Agriculture, Origins of
- Ancestor Worship
- Anti-Japanese War
- Architecture, Chinese
- Assertive Nationalism and China's Core Interests
- Buddhist Monasticism
- Central-Local Relations
- Chiang Kai-shek
- Children's Culture and Social Studies
- China and Africa
- China and Peacekeeping
- China and the World, 1900-1949
- China's Agricultural Regions
- China’s Soft Power
- China’s West
- Chinese Communist Party Since 1949, The
- Chinese Communist Party to 1949, The
- Chinese Diaspora, The
- Chinese Nationalism
- Chinese Script, The
- Christianity in China
- Classical Confucianism
- Confucius Institutes
- Consumer Society
- Contemporary Chinese Art Since 1976
- Criticism, Traditional
- Cross-Straits Relations
- Cultural Revolution
- Daoist Canon
- Deng Xiaoping
- Dialect Groups of the Chinese Language
- Disability Studies
- Drama (Xiqu 戏曲) Performance Arts, Traditional Chinese
- Dream of the Red Chamber
- Economic Reforms, 1978-Present
- Economy, 1949-1978
- Economy, 1895-1949
- Emergence of Modern Banks
- Environmental Issues in Contemporary China
- Environmental Issues in Pre-Modern China
- Establishment Intellectuals
- Ethnicity and Minority Nationalities Since 1949
- Ethnicity and the Han
- Examination System, The
- Fall of the Qing, 1840-1912, The
- Falun Gong, The
- Family Relations in Contemporary China
- Fiction and Prose, Modern Chinese
- Film, Chinese Language
- Film in Taiwan
- Financial Sector, The
- Folk Religion in Contemporary China
- Folklore and Popular Culture
- Foreign Direct Investment in China
- Gender Issues in Traditional China
- Great Leap Forward and the Famine, The
- Guomindang (1912-1949)
- Han Expansion to the South
- Health Care System, The
- Heritage Management
- Heterodox Sects in Premodern China
- Historical Archaeology (Qin and Han)
- Hukou (Household Registration) System, The
- Human Origins in China
- Human Rights in China
- Imperialism and China, c. 1800-1949
- Innovation Policy in China
- Intellectual Trends in Late Imperial China
- Islam in China
- Journalism and the Press
- Landscape Painting
- Language, The Ancient Chinese
- Language Variation in China
- Late Imperial Economy, 960-1895
- Law, Traditional Chinese
- Li Bai and Du Fu
- Liang Qichao
- Literati Culture
- Literature Post-Mao, Chinese
- Literature, Pre-Ming Narrative
- Local Elites in Ming-Qing China
- Local Elites in Song-Yuan China
- Management Style in "Chinese Capitalism"
- Mao Zedong
- Marketing System in Pre-Modern China, The
- Marxist Thought in China
- Material Culture
- May Fourth Movement
- Media Representation of Contemporary China, International
- Medicine, Traditional Chinese
- Medieval Economic Revolution
- Middle Period China
- Migration Under Economic Reform
- Ming Dynasty
- Ming-Qing Fiction
- Modern Chinese Drama
- Music in China
- Needham Question, The
- Neolithic Cultures in China
- New Social Classes, 1895–1949
- One Country, Two Systems
- Opium Trade
- Orientalism, China and
- Poetics, Chinese-Western Comparative
- Poetry, Early Medieval
- Poetry, Traditional Chinese
- Political Art and Posters
- Political Dissent
- Political Thought, Modern Chinese
- Polo, Marco
- Population Dynamics in Pre-Modern China
- Population Structure and Dynamics since 1949
- Poverty and Living Standards since 1949
- Printing and Book Culture
- Prose, Traditional
- Qi Baishi
- Qing Dynasty up to 1840
- Regional and Global Security, China and
- Religion, Ancient Chinese
- Renminbi, The
- Republican China, 1911-1949
- Revolutionary Literature under Mao
- Rural Society in Contemporary China
- School of Names
- Sino-Hellenic Studies, Comparative Studies of Early China ...
- Sino-Japanese Relations Since 1945
- Social Welfare in China
- Sociolinguistic Aspects of the Chinese Language
- Su Shi (Su Dongpo)
- Sun Yat-sen and the 1911 Revolution
- Taiping Civil War
- Taiwanese Democracy
- Technology Transfer in China
- Television, Chinese
- Terracotta Warriors, The
- Tertiary Education in Contemporary China
- Texts in Pre-Modern East and South-East Asia, Chinese
- Township and Village Enterprises
- Traditional Historiography
- Tribute System, The
- Unequal Treaties and the Treaty Ports, The
- United States-China Relations, 1949-present
- Urban Change and Modernity
- Warlords, The
- Water Management
- Yan'an and the Revolutionary Base Areas
- Yuan Dynasty
- Zhu Xi