Tag Archives: four arts of the scholar

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This beautiful ink and color scroll on silk is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Dating from the 13th century, it was done by an unknown artist. You can clearly see children everywhere, chasing each other, riding pretend horses, sliding down slides (who knew these things existed back then?)

Children are one of the most popular themes in Chinese art, and frequently can be seen playing in a garden, as above. According to Ann Barrow Wicks and Ellen B. Avril, in Children in Chinese Art, children have had a prominent place in art since the Song period which lasted from 960 until 1279. Images of children meant a lot to people all over China, to people of all classes.


noble callings on Mahjong tiles, children
noble callings on Mahjong tiles, children


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These unusual hand-carved bone and bamboo Mahjong Flower tiles are from a lovely set of tiles.

Ray Heaton has translated the characters on these tiles for us:
"This set uses some fairly common words/phrases, but the images on the tiles are great aren't they!

Did you know there are two types of Chinese characters, Simplified and Traditional? The Simplified characters were "introduced" in the late 1950s and 1960s to help literacy in mainland China, although simple forms had been used for a long time before then, sometimes with local variation.  I tend to use Traditional characters so sometimes the characters I use may look a little different to those on the tiles if I forget to note a difference!  Much of this character simplification exercise from the 50s and 60s used the previously simplified forms or forms that were used in various handwritten scripts.  Hong Kong and Taiwan still use traditional characters.

So, taking the green Chinese characters first (the right hand set)...

The tiles are The Four Arts or the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar, and were the four main accomplishments required of the Chinese scholar gentleman.
They are;
qin (the guqin, a stringed instrument. Tile #1,琴),
qi (the strategy game of Go or Chinese Chess, ,Xiangqi', Tile#2, 棋),
shu ( Chinese calligraphy tile#3,書) and
hua (Chinese painting tile#4,畫).

The last two can be particularly difficult to work out as the Chinese characters are often simplified in rather novel ways, a kind of short hand, and they get transposed with each other too.

And the other four, the red Chinese character set, shows the Four Noble Professions:

Tile #1, 漁, Yu, Fisherman
#2, 樵, Qiao, to Gather Wood, an abbreviated way of saying Woodcutter
#3, 耕, Geng, to Plow
#4, 讀, Dou, to Read or to Study

So these represent Fisherman, Woodcutter, Farmer and Scholar.

(You may also see the Four Noble Professions described as scholar, farmer, artisans and merchants.)

You may notice some real differences in the Chinese characters I used here (traditional) with those on the tiles (simplified). For example, tile #1, Fisherman, shows a character closer to 渔, which is the simplified version of 漁.

The tiles again reflect the desire for sons to maintain the family line and to perform ancestral duties; during the Ming period this extended to the hope for Guizi, or Noble Sons, who would excel in their studies and take top honours in the civil service examinations, and so bring wealth and high honour to their families.  So in the Ming period, boys began to be shown not just at play, but also showing 'clues' or symbolic references to wealth, fertility and distinguished success in officialdom.  I think your tiles are, then, referring back to such desires."

The images of the scholars and the noble callings have been given more visual and emotional interest by the artist by using children to showcase these symbols. The Scholar tiles ring as true today as they must have years ago. Don't they sum up to us how parents everywhere want good things to happen for their children?

To learn more about Mahjong's art, you might like to consider this purchase:

The book I wrote with Ann Israel is being published by Tuttle. To see more about it:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:


or here from Amazon



This post was written by Ray Heaton, and images were added. These four arts often appear in various forms on Mahjong tiles. 

The Four Arts (四藝, siyi), or the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar, were the four main leisure pursuits of the Chinese scholar gentleman. These are occasionally known as the Four Attainments of Pleasure.

Although the individual parts of the concept (Qin, Qi, Shu, Hua) have very long histories as activities befitting a learned person, the earliest written source putting the four together is Zhang Yanyuan's ''Fashu Yaolu'' or "exemplars of calligraphy", from the Tang Dynasty. The concept of these being "the four arts" is first found in the ''Xianqing ouqi'' or  "on the pleasure of idleness", by Li Yu, sometime around the mid 1600's.

琴, Qin, the Guqin, a seven stringed instrument (rather like a Zither or Lute) and is China's oldest stringed instrument, with a documented history of about 3,000 years. It became part of a tradition cultivated by Chinese scholars and literati since the time of Confucius. Its reputation rests not only on the rich and diverse musical expression it is capable of, but also on the fact that it has been revered as a symbol of Chinese high culture – the essence of Chinese thought and philosophy are integral to the Qin repertoire itself.  The Qin was Banned during the Cultural Revolution as belonging to one of "The Four Old Evils" or "The Four Olds".

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The qin as seen on the Cultural China website

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and on Wikipedia.

棋, Qi, the strategy game of Go or Chinese Chess, this will be either 圍棋 Weiqi the game of Go or 象棋, Xiangqí, Chinese Chess.  According to Patricia Bjaaland Welch in Chinese Art, A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, the game shown is most likely Weiqi.  The Chinese Imperial Court used Weiqi as a gauge to measure the intellectual strength of an imperial scholar, requiring good mental discipline, a deep philosophical attitude and a multi-campaign mentality.

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The image of scholars playing Go is from Wikipedia. Be sure to notice the young children hiding, and the taihu rock on the upper left.

書, Shu, means to write and also means book but is used to refer to Chinese calligraphy, the representative image is often illustrated by books wrapped in silk or paper and tied with a ribbon.  Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China. The elevated status of calligraphy reflecting the importance of the word in China and scholars, whose main currency was the written word, came to assume the dominant positions in government, society, and culture. Associated to this are the Four Treasures of the Scholar's Study, also referred to as "The four jewels of the study" and comprise the Brush, Ink, Paper and Inkstone.

Following are some visuals, versions of which may be seen on Mahjong tiles:

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From free stock photos above is a stack of books, which in Chinese art would be wrapped in fabric,

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an inkstone  above featured on thefullwiki.org,

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and a calligraphy scroll itself, a poem in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

And just to make sure there is an understanding of how and why these images can get confusing:

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from ancientpoint.com an inkstone shaped like a stack of books/scrolls! This leads us to:

畫, Hua, Chinese painting. These are often a rolled scroll, sometimes also wrapped with a ribbon.  Scholar-official painters most often worked in ink on paper and chose subjects—bamboo, old trees, rocks—that could be drawn using the same kind of disciplined brush skills required for calligraphy. This immediately distinguished their art from the colourful, illusionistic style of painting preferred by court artists and professionals. Proud of their status as amateurs, they created a new, distinctly personal form of painting in which expressive calligraphic brush lines were the chief means employed to animate their subjects. Another distinguishing feature of what came to be known as scholar-amateur painting is its learned references to the past. The choice of a particular antique style immediately linked a work to the personality and ideals of an earlier painter or calligrapher. Style became a language by which to convey one's beliefs.

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from wikipedia. The scholar seems to be copying a scene from the unrolled scroll, perhaps an attempt by this scholar to link to the earlier work of another.  We see the taihu rock here as well, and the Chinese barrel shaped stool we also saw in the drawing of the scholars playing Go.

One of the most popular posts on this website has been the one written about the hand-carved three layer tiles we call tri-color. Many of us feel these tiles are under-appreciated  (read under-valued) at the moment, and deserve to get better recognition. These sets are particularly fun because there are so many Flower tiles, unlike most sets made in the 1920s and 1930s.

The most common back color seen on these tri-color tiles is green. Of course, the "tri-color" name itself is a misnomer, because the middle layer is clear lucite.



It can be challenging at times to really understand the images seen on the tiles.


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The top row above has the seasons. I find it easiest to recognize the one on the left, with the little teardrops at the bottom. That is the symbol for winter, and if you see that, you probably are looking at the other three tiles being the other seasons.



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The easiest tile for me is the first one on the left, bamboo. Those two characters somewhat relate to each other, and that helps. On that line, the other characters are chrysanthemum, orchid and plum blossom.



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The 3rd row shows "abbreviations" of the four arts of the scholar. We often see these on lucite tiles as other tiles, and because they are so free of details it can be hard to recognize them. But they are:

Painting: many years ago in China painting was done on long scrolls that would be rolled up, looking like tile #4. There can sometimes be two rolls, which represents a scroll half-way rolled up.

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This is the earliest scroll ever found,dating from 868 in China, and it is found in the collection of the British Library, . You can see how it is rolled up, and how the abstract symbol on the tile resembles it.


From Wikipedia:

"The handscroll is a long narrow scroll for displaying a series of scenes in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting and calligraphy. The handscroll presents an artwork in the horizontal form and can be exceptionally long, usually measuring up to a few meters in length and around 25–40 cm in height.[2] Handscrolls are generally viewed starting from the right end.[3][4] This kind of scroll is intended to be viewed flat on a table while admiring it section for section during the unrolling as if traveling through a landscape.[4][5] In this way, this format allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative or journey.[6]"

For more on Chinese scrolls, click here


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This next tile was a bit tricky. It had been thought this represents an ink stone, because of the round hole seen on the top that would have been used to grind the ink stick into powder which would then be mixed with water to make ink for calligraphy. Reader Ray Heaton came up with the correct interpretation which was confirmed by a Chinese art Scholar.

From Ray:

"I suggest that the tile from the Four Arts described as showing an Ink stone rather shows a set of books that are wrapped and bound by ribbon (ribbons are used to show the auspicious nature of an object)."

The stack of books represents the learning required if one wanted to become a scholar and have a chance to get a position in government.

And certainly all of these tile images have the ribbons with them, indicating their auspicious nature.


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Go: A Chinese game played with round pieces. This symbol is sometimes also considered to be the game of chess. Both boards have small squares on them. Given we see two round pieces to the side and below the board, this may well be "go." or "weiqi."

From Wikipedia:

"Go (simplified Chinese: 围棋; traditional Chinese: 圍棋; pinyin: wéiqí, Japanese: 囲碁 igo,[nb 2] common meaning: "encircling game", Korean: 바둑 baduk[nb 3]) is a board game for two players that originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. Strategy is significant to the game despite its relatively simple rules.

The two players alternately place black and white playing pieces, called "stones", on the vacant intersections (called "points") of a grid of 19×19 lines (beginners often play on smaller 9×9 and 13×13 boards).[2] The objective of the game is to use one's stones to surround a larger total area of the board than the opponent.[3] Once placed on the board, stones may not be moved, but stones can be removed from the board if captured; this is done by surrounding an opposing stone or group of stones by occupying all orthogonally-adjacent points.[4] Players continue in this fashion until neither player wishes to make another move; the game has no set ending conditions. When a game concludes, the territory is counted along with captured stones and komi to determine the winner.[5] Games may also be won by resignation.

Go originated in ancient China. Archaeological evidence shows that the early game was played on a board with a 17×17 grid, but by the time the game had spread to Korea and Japan, in about the 5th and 7th centuries AD respectively, boards with a 19×19 grid had become standard.[6]"


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The above work is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, and the scroll shows scholars playing the game.

For more on "weiqi" click here



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Qin or lute: music. Every scholar knew how to play this instrument. The lute was often carried in a soft silk pouch.

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The remaining two rows will be discussed in the next post.

Our thanks to Tony for providing the Mahjong photographs.

***Reader Ray has suggested this might be a stack of books, tied with a ribbon. If anyone knows, please send me a comment. I will continue to try to find the answer.