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1074

Antique Blue and White Porcelain Plate
Item No. 1074

17th - 18th Century, N/A, China
Porcelain
1.25" x 0" x 0"
( 3.175 x 0 x 0 cm)
(H x W x D)

This is a 7" diameter blue and white under glaze porcelain dish from the late 17th or 18th centuries. A scholar is seated in a relaxed position inside his studio beside a square table on top of which sits an incense brazier in the upper left corner with a curling line of smoke emanating from within and a vase with three upright vertical stems rising from inside. To the rear the wall of the scholar's studio is open to the outside, there is a three part wood railing that leads down a set of stairs which are outside but not in view, there is a hastily sketched tree composed of three sections next to the railing, there are two sets of cloud-like forms that trail in the sky to the right and there are Chinese characters which we have yet to be translated under these cloud forms that may be a couplet, poem, or an identification of some kind.

As Fang Jing Pei has observed, until recent years the objects of the scholar's studio and the importance of scholars themselves have received scarce attention in the West, possibly owing to past collection trends, scarce knowledge of the subject and the prejudice that they were of secondary importance in Chinese art and culture. Recent scholarship and a number of exhibitions of scholar's objects, however, have cataloged the finely honed aesthetic sensibilities of scholars, their love for objects created with great technical precision, the diversity of material that was collected--material that spanned many centuries of Chinese art history, the unique role of the Chinese scholar in Chinese culture and history, and, in connection with the objects they collected, the association of the objects to language, philosophy, religion and folk belief. Thus, the objects and/or the decorative elements on them that scholars collected often led to additional symbolic dimensions, meaning or allusion to specific words, expressions, customs, historical events, myths or religious or folk beliefs by their connection through homophones, verbal rhymes, puns and rebuses. (Fang, pp 1-3) After all, the Chinese language in all its forms was the "business" of scholars.

Chinese scholars traditionally isolated themselves from others by confining themselves to their estates and to their studios so that they could find the quiet and calm they required for intense study and deep contemplation. Although a few were gifted, lucky and/or well-connected enough so that they were successful in receiving appointments as government officials and later find positions at the court and, therefore, at having a life of privilege, social status, wealth and, possibly, political importance, scholars spent years studying ancient classics and Confucian texts, steeping themselves in Chinese history and philosophy and learning the literary skills necessary for them to pass the civil service examinations. The road to wealth, importance and social status as a government official, however, was excruciatingly difficult and meant the need to pass increasingly rigorous examinations. That road, therefore, was littered with those lesser scholars who were forced to accept and remain in less important, prestigious and lucrative posts. These less successful scholars often retired from public life to assume the romantic persona of the scholar-hermit. These scholars were seen as paragons of virtue, as there was no greater act of filial piety than a son's efforts to advance the family's fortune and social status through scholarly pursuits, no matter what the amount of success was actualized. These scholars, more numerous than the ones with great successes, became private tutors, painters, calligraphers or professional poets. (Fang, p.1)

The scholar's studio depicted in this plate shows that not all scholar's estates were large, greatly appointed or examples of the great wealth of the so-called scholar "class." However, certain elements in this scene hold true for all scholar's and their studios. The fact that the rear wall of this scholar's studio is open to the landscape is significant, as Fang writes that the arrangement of the studio followed traditional cosmology. So, the north wall must be thick and without openings, as north was the direction of fearful and harmful forces. Likewise, the scholar must sit facing south, the garden and the entrance to it must be in the south, and so on. The supreme position for the scholar was at his desk facing a courtyard garden to the south so he would be at the epicenter of the four cardinal directions.

When one usually sees scene's of scholar's studios, one is almost always struck by the landscape one sees through the openings, as scholars were always known for their love of nature, having estates (whatever the size or importance) located where they could enjoy the rustic life and commune with and be close to nature, having objects made from natural materials, and so on. This was a natural progression from their study of Chinese literature, as Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism all stressed man's oneness with nature. Taoists taught that the Tao--the Way or natural order of the cosmos-- permeated all things and that man should follow his natural inclinations. Confucian writings taught that nature was moral and able to instruct men, that Tian or heaven should be worshiped as a deity, and that it controlled the fate of man and presided over nature. Buddhists believed that one could find in nature the peace and serenity to attain a more enlightened mind.

One wonders, therefore, why the view out of this scholar's studio is so empty. There are no usual mountain views in the far distance, no hills in the near distance, no landscapes with trees, plants and color. Perhaps the answer comes from Yiyang Zhang, who explains in an essay in Fang's book that colors are employed to convey multiple meanings in Chinese objects. The color white (bai), he explains, is a homophone for empty or ignorance, so perhaps the scholar represented here is an less successful hermit/scholar symbolically expressed by the large areas of white and an absence of a more normal landscape. (Yiyang, The Chinese Language & Scholar Objects," in Fang, p. 16)

Another of the usual elements pictured here is the scholar and his object's associations to and love for the Chinese language. Ping, the Chinese word for vase, has the same sound of the first character for the Chinese word for peace (ping-an), so, therefore, the act of giving a vase as a gift to a friend is a wish to bring him or her peace. Moreover, a vase can serve as a container for a variety of flowers and be made of different materials or in different shapes, each of which can contain different and interesting rebuses. Therefore, a vase (ping) with a crackled glaze (sui)is a symbol meaning 'may you be safe and sound year after year;" a vase with a branch of lychees (lizhi)
means "may you have peace and good fortune;" and a vase with roses (yuej) means 'may you have peace throughout the four seasons." (See Bartholomew, pp. 249-252)

The vase on the scholar's table painted on this plate, therefore, is a wish for peace. However, the vase is not just any kind of vase; it is a square vase (fanghu), which is based on a bronze prototype from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 202 A.D.). It is a pun on Fanghu, one of the islands of the Immortals and, therefore, the square vase on the table here is not just a wish for peace but also a wish for longevity as well. (Bartholomew, P. 227)


Sources:

Fang Jing Pei, "Treasures of the Chinese Scholar," New York, Weatherhill, 1997.

Terese Tse Bartholomew, "Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art," San Francisco, The Asian Art Museum, 2006.

Yiyang Zhang, "The Chinese Language & Scholar Objects," in Fang Jing Pei, "Treasures of the Chinese Scholar," New York, Weatherhill, 1997.

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