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The Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar 四藝 1
  By Du Jin: expand          
The "four arts" (si yi) can also be called the "four leisure time pleasures (yanxian si shi).2 However, these seem to be rather late expressions (Ming dynasty?), and neither is as common as the expression "qin qi shu hua", which names them: qin-chess-calligraphy-painting.3 Qin qi shu hua is also apparently a quite ancient expression, with references dating from the Tang dynasty, while the earliest reference I have found for "si yi" is the following statement by Li Yu (1611-1680)4 in his Sketches of Idle Pleasures (Xianqing Ouji); note the reversed ordering.5 This statement is typical Li Yu's attitude towards education for women.6 In order for young maidens to have self-confidence their activities should often include the four arts: painting, calligraphy, qin and chess.

The four arts are a well known theme not just from classical painting,7 but also from folk art. My own folk art screen,8 featuring ladies, seems to well illustrate the opinion expressed by Li Yu. The four arts are also depicted on a number of high quality porcelain objects,9 emphasizing the broad range of popularity of this theme. In scholars' paintings, such as the set of four scrolls below, it was not uncommon to structure a depiction of these activities in the form of such an elegant gathering of gentlemen.10

Not everyone was comfortable with the association of qin with a competitive game, as indicated by the following passage from Qinxue Congshu (1910).11

Question: Which is superior, the qin or chess?

Answer: The quadruplet qin-chess-calligraphy-painting has been used since the time of Huizong (emperor, 1101-1125) of the Song dynasty. But in reality the qin is an instrument that embodies dao, and as such it is entirely different from chess. The qin is near to Daoism, it teaches one how to subdue the scheming mind. To illustrate this the tune Oulu Wang Ji was made. But for playing chess one needs just such a scheming mind. Chess experts often suffer form hemophtysis and general decline in health. The qin, on the contrary driving away sickness, is a first basis for attaining prosperity. Therefore it is quite the opposite of chess."

Nevertheless, qin qi shu hua was a well known theme in scholars' paintings, often represented in four related paintings (quadriptyches), as below.

18 Scholars, by Du Jin (16th c.), in the Shanghai Museum;12 from right: qin qi shu and hua at an elegant gathering (top).

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Four arts (四藝 si yi)
III/601 四藝. 4782.799 四藝:琴、棋、書、畫四種技藝也 (4 arts: four types of artistic skills, namely qin qi shu hua [below]).

2. Four Leisure-Time Pleasures (燕閒四適 Yanxian Si Shi)
This is the title of a book edited by the Fujian scholar 孫丕顯 Sun Pixian. Qin Pleasures is the first section. Si Shi (四適 3/xxx; 4782.xxx); Yanxian Si Shi (燕閒四適 19876.163 only 燕閒﹕休閒); Sun Pixian (孫丕顯 7135.xxx).

3. Qin-chess-calligraphy-painting (琴棋書畫 qin qi shu hua)
21579.62 琴棋書畫: elegant arts; reference is given to 法書要錄 Fashu Yaolu (17638.158): compiled in the Tang dynasty by 張彥遠 Zhang Yanyuan. Another early reference is quoted in QSDQ, Folio 17, #7. The same expression is also found in Japan as kin ki sho ga; the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had a large Japanese screen painting on this theme (translated as the Four Accomplishments) on display in 2002/3.

4. 李漁 Li Yu
Li Yu (1610-1680; Wikipedia) was a noted playwright, novelist and commentator on society. See also: Chun-shu Chang and Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang, Crisis and Transformation in Seventeenth-Century China: Society, Culture, and Modernity in Li Yu's World; Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1992.

5. 李漁 Li Yu on women playing guqin
The original of the quote translated above ("以閨秀自命者,書畫琴棋四藝均不可少。") is from 閒情偶寄,聲容部習技第四 a chapter in Li Yu's Sketches of Idle Pleasures (Xianqing Ouji; ctext.org).

Li Yu began the chapter with a somewhat different prescription for women's learning, referring to four crafts/artful skills (技藝 jiyi) as follows:

Of the artful skills writing literature is most imporant, next is playing music ("silk and bamboo"), then comes singing and dancing....This does not diminish (the importance of) woman's weaving....

Li Yu's comments on singing and dancing may provide some insight into women in relation to qin songs, as is further discussed here.

6. Li Yu and women
See also Women and the Guqin. It should be noted that, in spite of his statement above encouraging women to play the qin, his erotic novel Carnal Prayer Mat (肉蒲團 Rou Bu Tuan; Wiki) makes no mention of qin except in one paragraph of Chapter 3, which includes the phrase 琴瑟 qinse twice.

7. Other depictions of the four arts
For a good English reference to other depictions of the four arts (or the "four gentlemanly arts") see pp. 51-53 of the article referenced in a footnote to the melody 18 Scholars Ascend Yingzhou.

8. Qin qi shu hua folk art screen
This was bought in Hanoi, but I later found the same item in Shanghai, mounted differently.

9. Ceramic examples
The 19 September 2007 sale of Fine Chinese Ceramics, Jades and Works of Art, in New York, featured at least two vases with this theme, lot #s (no longer online) 267 and 276. Unfortunately neither online illustration showed the side with the qin player.

10. Elegant Gathering (雅集 yaji)
"Yaji" is the common term used by qin players for social gatherings at which they play for each other. However, in the broader since these are in effect multi-media events, such as depicted on paintings like those seen here. At such gatherings the literati inspire each other through their arts: seeing calligraphy may inspire qin music; the music may inspire a poem, and so forth.

11. Passage from Qinxue Congshu (1910)
See the facsimile edition, Vol. 11, p.8. Translation is by R.H. Van Gulik, Lore of the Chinese Lute, pp.47-8 (spelling adjusted).

12. 18 Scholars, by Du Jin (杜堇:十八學士)
This quadriptych (set of four related paintings) was included in 兩塗軒:書畫集萃, pp. 36-43, published in 2002 by the Shanghai Museum, but the online image above was made by photographing small ceramic copies sold in the Shanghai Museum Gift Shop. There are further details of this painting in a short online video (typically missed opportunity on the music). The page on Du Jin in Wikipedia is currently just a stub.

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