In Chinese society, a significant source of art and culture came from the scholarly class or literati. This section of society, made up of primarily intellectual elite, emphasized the study of history and engaged in active conversation with past masters in art, which was shown through calligraphy and painting. Scholars were additionally influenced by Confucianism, a philosophy that mainly emphasized human relationships, and Daoism, a philosophy that focused on the relationship between humans and nature. These ideologies were reflected in both scholars’ artistic work and private workspaces. It was believed that the studios of serious scholars must show a certain level of taste as well as possess a variety of calligraphy and paintings from past dynasties. For this reason, their studios displayed objects that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The variety of objects within the scholar’s studio demonstrated an appreciation of past art and served as a source of inspiration for their own works. Objects such as a brush washer and a lacquer box were used by scholars when they wrote and created painting and calligraphy, but given their intricate, exterior decoration they also served as works of art themselves. In addition to these functional objects, scholars collected thought-provoking pieces of art that decorated their studios and served as inspiration for their work. Within this exhibition, one can see items such as painted hanging scrolls and dream stone screens. Each of these items makes direct references to past Chinese art forms such as jades, bronzes, and landscape paintings. The possession of prized artistic objects allowed scholars to connect with past masters while cultivating their own spirit.

Inkstones serve both the utilitarian function of grinding ink and a larger artistic purpose. Through the precision and skill of their artists, inkstones became renowned objects of beauty rather than mere utilitarian tools. The act of grinding ink was an aesthetic experience for literati scholars. It stimulated the mind, inspiring them to create works of merit. Inkstones also allowed scholars to express their fine aesthetic taste.

The carving on this particular inkstone portrays Wang Xizhi’s gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, a popular Chinese tale. On April 22, 353 CE, Wang Xizhi 王羲之, a famous calligrapher and artist, invited forty-one friends to his garden at the Orchid Pavilion. At Wang’s gathering, he initiated a drinking contest among his friends. They floated cups of rice wine down the creek and when a cup stopped, the man nearest had to empty it and write a poem. Wang Xizhi then collected all of those poems and created a preface for his scroll, “The Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion.” The inscription on the underside of the inkstone is the text of Wang’s preface.

Round Lacquer Box

This object is a box most likely designed for storing incense given its round shape. The box is made from colored lacquer with complicated process that possibly took more than one year to construct. Due to the heavy cost of building this object, it is likely to be belonged to an elite family at the time. There are two figures on the box, appearing to be a scholar and a servant, a theme corresponding well to the likely elite background of the owner. The box’s border is filled with concentric squares called a key fret border. The air surrounding the figures is also depicted with a similar “key fret” style. Overall, the box only features the single pattern of squared motif. This indicates that the box was produced around 17th century because this kind of single pattern motif style was most popular around that time.