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The Scholar in Chinese Culture

For centuries, the scholar represented an ideal in Chinese culture. Great respect was accorded individuals who could read classical texts, write and paint, and pursue academic studies. This gallery at the Kwek Hong Png Wing considers a range of themes, from the scholar-officials who ran the government, to merchants who aspired to become scholars, to overseas Chinese who adopted many of the attributes of scholars.

True scholars, called literati, could read classical texts, write beautifully, paint well, play music, and pursued academic studies.


Table screen
China, Qing dynasty (Qianlong period, 1736–95)
Lacquered wood, height 63.4 cm 

The ideals of Confucius

Confucius (551–479 BC) praised scholars and educated government officials. Bureaucrats were traditionally selected by examinations based on Confucian texts. These scholar-officials are sometimes called mandarins. The system was meant to build a meritocracy not based on class, but in practice families with good social connections produced scholars.

Ladies Outing in the style of Li Gonglin
Ladies Outing
in the style of Li Gonglin
(detail)
Pu Ru, Chinese, 1896–1963
China, mid-20th century
Chinese ink and colour on silk

To the country

Officials who grew tired of the corruption and pressures of government would escape to the countryside to pursue poetry and painting close to nature. Others fled from politics, or because they had failed the mandarin exams. By the 16th century there was a large congregation of scholars in southern China and their lifestyle was emulated by many people who adopted aspects of the scholar, or collected objects associated with this image.

Octagonal box with cover
Octagonal box with cover 

China, late Yuan dynasty (14th century)
Mother-of-pearl, lacquer, silver, diameter 24.5 cm

Scholars in Singapore

Beginning in the 17th century and expanding in the 19th century, many Chinese ventured to Southeast Asia to make their fortune. Successful businessmen sometimes turned to scholarly pursuits in the traditional model. An early leader of the Teochew community in Singapore, Seah Eu Jin, took up painting and calligraphy late in life. The Peranakan Lim Boon Keng, who was English-educated, became a leader of the Confucian revival movement as well as president of Amoy University. Wealthy overseas Chinese often wore the robes and badges of mandarins, although they were not technically entitled to these insignia.

Gui
Ritual food vessel (Gui)
China, Shaanxi province, early Western Zhou dynasty, late 11th or 10th century BC
Bronze, height 22.1 cm

Panel Text Translations

Chinese

Malay

Tamil