The Chinese Scholar-Official

The Chinese scholar-official occupied a position at the top of the traditional hierarchical society, for he possessed prestige, wealth, and power. Because of the difficulty of mastering the classical Chinese writing style, only a tiny fraction of the population of China was fully literate, and government officials were selected from this small group of highly educated scholars.

An ambitious young man would pursue an arduous course of study in the Chinese classics in preparation for the civil service examination. These exams required thorough knowledge of the Confucian canon, plus the ability to write essays on moral issues and current affairs and poems in a variety of formal styles. The candidate thus had to develop talent and worldly sophistication, as well as his erudition, to become a successful well-rounded literatus. If he passed the examination, there was virtually only one career open to him, and that was to enter government service. Consequently, the government bureaucracy was composed of rigorously trained scholar-artists; conversely, poets and painters held official positions as powerful politicians.

This system had far-reaching implications for Chinese culture and government. Politically, it elevated the level of artistic accomplishment in court life. The Emperor and his courtiers were all accomplished poets, and every official ceremony or banquet would be celebrated in verse. The Records of Occasions in T'ang Poetry reports:

Whenever the Son of Heaven would go on picnics or pleasure outings, he would be accompanied only by his ministers and the Auxiliary Scholars. In spring his Majesty would visit the Pear Orchard and attend the Purification Ceremony at the Mei River, at which he would present circlets of willow to ward off the pestilence. In summer, he would hold banquets at the vineyards and present red cherries. In autumn, he would climb to the Buddha of the Temple of Compassionate Mercy, and there he would be offered chrysanthemum flower wine with a wish for his Majesty's long life. In winter, his Majesty would visit Hsin-feng, passing through the White Deer Pavilion, and climbing Mount Li, where he would permit a bath in the Warm Springs. There, he would grant fragrant powders and orchid oils. To those of his retinue he would present horses from the Soaring Unicorn Stables, and to each of his officials, a yellow robe.

Whenever the emperor was moved by something, he would write a poem, and all the Scholars would follow suit using the same rhyme. This indeed was what men of that age took delight in and yearned after.

— from Stephen Owen, The Poetry of the Early T'ang (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 256. Reprinted with permission.

In a formal occasional poem of this sort, each poet would be expected to demonstrate his talent and flatter his sovereign at the same time. Promotions in rank were often based on literary skill.

Writing celebratory poems was also a common practice at less formal occasions. When a member of the court was promoted or exiled, his colleagues would write him poems of congratulation or condolence; scholar-officials sent poems back and forth as invitations, thank you notes, requests for favors, and farewells. When Wang Wei (699-761), a pre-eminent Tang scholar-official, was invited to spend the day at a superior official's country estate, he expressed his gratitude in a poem which showed his own talent for poetic composition by both admiring the natural landscape and praising the guest list:

Secretary Wei Living in the Mountains

How fortunate for me to be noticed by your lordship,
And to accompany you to traces beyond the dusty world;
Wild flowers fill the crags and valleys,
Waterfalls reflect the firs and pines.
Singing birds suddenly approach the stream,
Returning clouds occasionally enfold the peaks.
Our fine companions are all prestigious and high-ranking officials;
Following them, many awesome imperial ministers.
How could I have expected you would invite me to take the road through
the Ch'ing Gate?
And thus let me hear the bells of the Palace of Eternal Bliss?
At dawn we left the court audience:
How leisurely our carriages and horses travel along.

— from Marsha L. Wagner, Wang Wei (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1981), 169. Reprinted with permission.

Aesthetically, the merging of the roles of poet and politician also had significant consequences.

In the West, the artist is often considered an inspired eccentric; the genius is a social misfit. In China, the opposite was the typical situation: the poet was in the center of a social network in which his art was public and conventional. Sharing a similar education with other scholar-officials, he could make allusions to the classics which they would all readily recognize; he wrote in a style to which they all conformed. Innovation was looked upon with suspicion; most originality was criticized as ignorance. The public quality of Chinese poetry meant that it could be evaluated by distinctive criteria which took into account the social and political context in which it was composed.

Even recluse and Buddhist poetry were implicitly political, for if a government bureaucrat decided to resign from office and live as a hermit or take religious vows, he was making a political decision not to participate in the political system. Many apparent landscape poems reveal some ambivalence about this decision, for scholars raised with the Confucian ideal of duty defined living in seclusion by its opposite: not serving the government. The language of nature poetry characteristically includes references to the court world which has been rejected, as in the following occasional poem:

On a Spring Evening in the Bamboo Pavilion, Presented to Vice Prefect Ch'ien on his Return to Lan-t'ien

The night is still, all movement has ceased;
Occasionally we hear dogs barking beyond the woods.
This makes me remember times at the mountain,
Human habitations far west of the mountain streams.
I envy your setting off on a journey in the morning
To pick bracken and disparage official carriages and caps.

— from Marsha L. Wagner, Wang Wei (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1981), 85. Reprinted with permission.

Since the time of Confucius, poetry has been considered the authentic manifestation of an individual's deepest feelings; when one's heart overflowed with emotion, it expressed itself in poetry and song. Thus, when the emperor wanted to ascertain whether or not the people were satisfied with his government, he would listen to their folk songs. By extension, it was believed that poetry expressed an individual's true character: On the official civil service examination, candidates revealed their moral and spiritual qualities in the poetry they submitted. A typical topic for an examination poem would be the theme of purity.

In the 11th century, a group of scholar-officials sought to elevate painting to the status of poetry. Su Dongpo (1037-1101) and his circle believed that all forms of art were admirable expressive outlets for scholar-officials in their leisure time, and in their theory of wen-ren hua, (literally, painting by literary men), they articulated the synthesis of poetry and painting which has been fashionable since the Song dynasty: paintings are voiceless poems, poems are voiced paintings. Underlying their equating of poetry and painting was the wen-ren critics' assumption that a highly cultivated literatus has a noble character, and his personal qualities and aesthetic sensibility will be manifested equally in poetry or painting or calligraphy. In other words, the artistic process of expressing one's personality and spirit is the same regardless of the particular form used.

Wang Wei was idealized by Su Dongpo and his wen-ren circle because he, like themselves, pursued artistic occupations while at leisure from official duties; he combined political prominence, classical learning, and Buddhist piety. For example, Wang Wei inscribed the following 4-line poem on a painting entitled "Mist and Rain at Lan-t'ien":

In The Mountains

In Bramble Creek, white stones stick out;
The sky is cold, red leaves are few.
On mountain paths, though there is no rain,
The sky's green dampens one's clothes.

The poem uses vivid images to give the feeling of an autumn lake in the mountains; it ends with an evocative paradox which questions the source of the damp atmosphere: is it from dew falling off trees or the misty clouds surrounding the mountain peak? Su Dongpo considered this poem an ideal illustration of the quality which distinguished all fine art, in whatever form: a sudden flash of inspiration which reflects the artist's mood or feelings at the time of composition. To indicate this synthetic spirit, he pronounced his famous comment: "When I savor Wang Wei's poems, there is painting in the poetry; when I look at Wang Wei's painting, there is poetry in the painting."

Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Marsha Wagner, Columbia University.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why were there so few scholar-officials in traditional China? What did a man have to do to become a scholar-official?
  2. Name two occasions for which a poem might be written.
  3. Why is poetry in traditional China considered to be political? And what was the social consequence of this?
  4. What, according to Su Dongpo, is the relationship between painting and poetry?
  5. In the essay it says that poetry was used for invitations, congratulations, etc. Is this similar to our own customs? How? (Note: Think of when you send "wishes" to family and friends, especially greeting cards.)