The Literati’s Ordinaries — A Proposal of Life from the 17th Century

Wuxianzhi (Gazetteer of the Wu County) (1642)National Palace Museum

Trends, tastes, and consumption reflect the features of the times. The prosperous region of 17th century Jiangnan, largely populated by the literati, developed a glamorous lifestyle that propelled local consumption.

Wujun Mingxiantu Zhuanzan by Gu YuanNational Palace Museum

Wen Zhenheng
and the Treatise
on Superfluous

Born into an extremely influential literary family of Suzhou, Wen Zhenheng (1586 - 1645) was the great grandson of Wen Zhengming (1470 - 1559). Wen Zhenheng had a wide circle of acquaintances and compiled the book Treatise on Superfluous Things, which became the guideline for cultural taste in the late Ming dynasty. 

Examining Antiques (1211/1211) by Liu SongnianNational Palace Museum

What was the taste of the literati in the 17th century?

Appreciation of antiques was considered an elegant activity among the literati, and demonstrated their taste and ability. These painted figures are concentrated on examining bronzes and porcelains.

This painting depicts the trend of appreciating antiques during the late Ming dynasty.

Mallet-shaped Vase in Celadon Glaze, Longquan ware by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Song dynasty Guan ware and Ming dynasty Xuande ware were considered the best among all the porcelain wares. Connoisseurs viewed them with delight and admiration, while they brought new flavor into daily life for the literati.

For instance, this mallet-shaped vase in celadon glaze from the Southern Song dynasty was seen as an ideal flower vase.

Floral-rimmed Washer with Lotus Pond Design in Underglaze Blue by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

This washer in underglaze blue has a rim shaped into ten flower petals. Patterns of swimming fish and water plants decorate the inner base and the exterior of the vessel. Wen Zhenheng approved Xuande ware porcelain like this piece as appropriate for the studio.

Timely Clearing After Snowfall (AD 265-AD 420) by Wang Xizhi (ca. 303-361)National Palace Museum

Calligraphy works were evaluated based on the works of the Tang dynasty, and regular script was considered the standard. For example, a hundred words in cursive script by Wang Xizhi were considered to have the same value as one line of running script. Three lines of running script were compared with one line of regular script. However, a whole work should not be evaluated by word count.

Picking Chrysanthemums by Tang YinNational Palace Museum

Paintings were evaluated based on the subjects they depicted. 'Portraits of ancient masters' was identified as the ideal subject in Treatise on Superfluous Things.

This painting depicts the idolized literati Tao Yuanming, thus it must have been categorized as a 'portrait of an ancient master' in the late Ming dynasty.

Water Pourer in the Shape of a Child Riding Elephant in White Glaze by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Vulgar Objects

There were even evaluation standards for vulgar objects. This water pourer in the shape of a child riding an elephant violated the Jiangnan literati taboo as “figurine-shaped objects were inelegant,” showing that literati principles of connoisseurship were entirely different from those of average people.

The Illumination in the Thatched Hut (Detail) by Sun KehongNational Palace Museum

Applicable Things

The subtle difference between the 'applicable’ and the ‘inapplicable’ reflects the knowledge and judgment of taste held by Wen Zhenheng and his friends.

During the repetition of the seasons, the literati situated their bodies and souls in a world formed by material objects.

Lacquer Container with Paulownia Flower Design by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

In the Treatise on Superfluous Things, the entry for “box” mentions the phrase “wo box,” which refers to a kind of Japanese lacquered box. Their lightweight and exquisite craftsmanship made them suitable for storing “ancient jades, precious objects, or small scrolls from the Jin and Tang dynasty,” in addition to “scrolls, incense, or curios.” It was useful to have many in the studio.

Censer with Fish-shaped Handles in Celadon Glaze by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Objects bearing collectors’ marks reflected the preferences and purchasing power of the literati class and connoisseurs.

Censer with Fish-shaped Handles in Celadon Glaze by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Xian Yuanbian (1525 - 1590), style name Zijing, was a prominent collector active in the Jiangnan district during the 16th century.

The marks “Zijing” and “Xian Yuanbian’s mark” on the inner lid of this fish-shaped-handled censer show that it was a beloved piece in his collection.

Dish in Celadon Glaze , Ru ware by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The wood stand of this Northern Song dynasty celadon dish bears the mark “Treasure Collection of An Yizhou.” An Qi (1683 - 1745), style name Yizhou, was a painting and calligraphy collector active in Tianjin and Yangzhou in the first half of the 18th century. He excelled at appraising antiquities.

Dish in Celadon Glaze , Ru ware by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

If we return to the time of Wen Zhenheng, we will realize that he seldom mentioned Ru ware porcelain. However, before Wen’s publication, Gao Lian had already written extensively about the traits of Ru ware in Zunsheng Bajian (Eight Treatises on Following the Principles of Life), reflecting a change in the circulation of antiquities.

Bowl with Impressed Lotus Pattern in Egg-white Glaze by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

In Pursuit of Curios in the Market

The prosperity of the Jiangnan region in the late Ming encouraged the escalating demand for antiques and luxuries among the public.

Unofficial Matters from the Wanli Reign (Wanli Yehuobian) by Shen DefuNational Palace Museum

The desire for knowledge of connoisseurship also motivated the development of the publishing industry.

The Ming scholar Shen Defu completed Wanli Yehuobian (Unofficial Matters from the Wanli Reign) during the 34th and 35th year (1606-1607) of the Wanli reign. The content of the book, from court regulations and anecdotes to local customs, is fairly broad and rendered in the biji (essay) style. This work includes content on the connoisseurship of antiquities and paintings adored by the public. It was a considerably popular publication on connoisseurship in the market.

Bronze Ding Cauldron of the Master Jingyi (1635/1635)National Palace Museum

Nobles placed orders of custom-made goods according to their tastes, and scholars aspiring to the trend acquired contemporary works in the style of ancient bronzes. This piece was ordered by the King Lu Zhu Changfang (1608 - 1648) in 1635.

Silver raft cup of "Zhang Qian Riding a Raft" with the mark of Zhu Bishan (AD 1271-AD 1644) by Zhu BishanNational Palace Museum

Works made by craftsmen with exquisite skill and advanced expertise were highly sought after. This increased demand further encouraged the production of objects bearing the marks of celebrated craftsmen or renowned workshops.

This silver raft has the inscription “Bishanzi” and “Zhizheng yiyounian zhi” on its base. It indicates that this piece may have been made by Zhu Bishan, a famous silversmith in the Jiaxing district during the Yuan dynasty.

Bright Yellow Cauldron with Animal-Mask Decorations (AD 1368-AD 1644) by Zhou DanquanNational Palace Museum

Zhou Danquan was an active master in creating antiquarian style objects among circles of antiquity connoisseurs by the end of 16th century. According to legend, one day he saw a white porcelain Ding tripod at the house of Tang Taichang (Jinshi, imperial scholar, in 1571), so Zhou borrowed it and carefully noted down its design and patterns. Soon after, he created a porcelain tripod which looked the same as the original. It was so hard to differentiate between the copy and the original that Tang even bought the copy.

Porcelain Tripod with Animal-mask Design and Arch Handles in Yellow glaze by Zhou DanquanNational Palace Museum

This work is another round tripod. Even though its base is marked with the words “made by Zhou Danquan,” there isn’t enough evidence to prove it was actually made by Zhou. Therefore, it was likely produced by a celebrated craftsman or a renowned workshop through word of mouth.

Birds by Huizong (1082-1137)National Palace Museum

Authentic works were expensive and rare, and a lack of true connoisseurship stimulated a large amount of calligraphy, paintings, and objects imitating ancient pieces to meet consumer demand. Moreover, these imitations even became the mainstream.

For example, forgeries of Emperor Huizong’s paintings and calligraphy were rather popular at the time. This work is an example.

Birds by Huizong (1082-1136)National Palace Museum

The top of the painting is marked with “Yu hua xie sheng ling mao tu” in "Slender Gold“ script, the style of Emperor Huizong. On the area between the mounting silk and artwork are light marks of Huizhong’s reign, “Zhenghe” and “Xuanhe,” under which there is “Yushu.”

Birds by Huizong (1082-1138)National Palace Museum

The painting is rather lovely; however, some parts were painted stiffly and the junction of colors is not fluent. This work clearly was not produced by the Imperial Painting Academy of Emperor Huizong.

Birds by Huizong (1082-1139)National Palace Museum

This painting also has an attached painting of mandarin ducks in a lotus pond. The second painting has no inscription, but is of even higher quality than the first bird and flower painting, which is full of fake marks.

Mountains in Snow by Ma YuanNational Palace Museum

“Wild and Heterodox” Painting

Although this painting is signed Ma Yuan (active from 1190 - 1225) at the lower left hand corner, it is believed to be the work of Zhong Li.

The Treatise on Superfluous Things identified several Zhe-school painters as the “devilish school of paintings,” and demanded audiences not to collect their pieces. Zhong Li was one of these painters, and likely forged Ma Yuan’s signature on this work in order to gain the acceptance of consumers and raise the value of the painting.

Gourd-shaped Vase with Facets and Properous Design in Underglaze Blue by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Export Porcelains in Circulation

Export porcelain circulating between East and West in the 17th century had a great overseas market.

Polychrome Teapot with Mandarin Ducks Design and a Handle by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

However, Wen Zhenheng considered objects in the shape of paired Mandarin ducks inelegant while patterns of the Wan (卍) character were seen as extremely vulgar. The comparison demonstrates that the taste of literati and popular styles on the market were quite different from each other!

Credits: Story

This presentation is from "The Literati's Ordinaries: A Proposal of Life from the 17th Century", an exhibition organized by the National Palace Museum (September 28, 2019–January 5, 2020). The exhibition is curated by Pei-chin Yu, Hsiao-yun Wu, Shih-hua Chiu, Tzu-yin Lin, Yi-li Hou, Yuan-ting Hsu, Lan-yin Huang, and Wing Cheong Cheng.

© 2020 National Palace Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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