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Siyi: Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar

Oct 22, 2009

How do you show somebody your wit and civilization as a person of learning? Speaking 6 different languages, playing piano or violin, having doctoral degrees, etc., nowadays, the criteria could be pretty diversified in a modern world.

In ancient China, to qualify yourself as a well-educated person, you should learn four skills for your self-cultivation and to prove your talent. These four skills are:

  1. Qin 琴: to play an instrument Guqin (music)
  2. Qi 棋: to play Go game (mind sport)
  3. Shu 书: Chinese calligraphy (fine art)
  4. Hua 画: Chinese painting (fine art)

Qin (Guqin)


Guqin is one of most ancient Chinese musical instruments, the earliest Chinese plucked string instrument, with its history almost as old as Chinese civilization. Guqin has a wide range, distant sound, with a deep sense of oriental culture.

Guqin has always been favored by Chinese elites, with the title of “Father of Chinese Music,” “Sage‘s Instrument”. During its long history, Guqin accumulated a lot of music documents and it has also interacted and influenced mutually with other forms of ideas and arts. It occupies a pivotal position in traditional Chinese culture.

You can get a taste of perfect combination of Guqin music and martial arts in this clip from movie “Hero”. Best part starts at 4’22”.

Qi (Go (game))

Go originated in ancient China, perhaps around the 6th century BC. Legend says that King Yao’s son Danzhu was unruly, so Yao invented Go to educate Danzhu and to mold his temperament. The earliest reliable records about Go found in the Spring and Autumn Period, in “Zuo Zhuan”. “Yi-Qiu” during Warring States Period is the first player found in historical records.


by {link:http://www.flickr.com/photos/poorfish/2180284915/}poorfish{/link}

by Poorfish

Currently the world’s super-computers are still unable to simulate the artificial intelligence for Go because algorithm of Go is too complicated. “Deep Blue” can beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov, because the winning criteria is clearly defined as killing the king. So chess algorithm is not difficult. But in Go, players does not necessarily have to kill each other’s pieces, and each step can have hundreds of options. The difficulty of algorithm for Go is clearly much higher.

Shu (Chinese calligraphy)


Chinese calligraphy is the art of writing Chinese characters. Based on Chinese characters, Chinese calligraphy is a very unique visual art, but this uniqueness does not prevent people who do not know Chinese to appreciate Chinese calligraphy. Chinese character is an important factor because Chinese calligraphy was created and developed in Chinese culture, while Chinese character is one of the basic elements of Chinese culture. Relying on Chinese characters distinguishes Chinese calligraphy from other types of calligraphy in other cultures.

In ancient China, calligraphy has a very high degree of participation, most intellectuals had to pay different levels of effort to learn calligraphy, produced a large number of calligrapher. Since the Qin and Han dynasties, a considerable number of calligraphic works have been created; best of the best become the most precious collectibles for the royal family, aristocrats and literati. In addition, Chinese calligraphy has a rich, complete theoretical system of the same strain down the history, suggesting that calligraphy is already a very mature art in ancient China.

Hua (Chinese painting)


by {link:http://www.flickr.com/photos/qiping/2548792038/}Qiping{/link}

by Qiping

Chinese painting generally refers to the traditional Chinese painting art. In narrow sense, it refers only to ink painting, while in broad sense, it includes not only all traditional Chinese style of painting murals, brocade painting, embroidery, ink paintings, stone carvings and even painting on ceramic art, but also the modern Chinese oil paintings.

There are many differences in the principles of Chinese painting and Western painting. Chinese painting focuses on similarity in spirit instead of shape, emphasizes summed-up observation not on-site copying, uses scatter perspective (cavalier perspective) instead of focus perspective, and pays attention to mood instead of reproducing the scene. Modern Chinese painting began to absorb some of Western painting techniques, such as lighting configuration, and accurate human anatomy; on the other hand, some artists are also applying the emphasis of mood in oil painting.

Dear reader of ChinaBlog.cc, have you learned any of these “Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar”?

[Chinese Keywords]
民间艺术 琴棋书画

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  1. October 24th, 2009 at 22:43 | #1

    Funny to see what was considered as a proper education. Make sense too.

    Of the four, I have only tried calligraphy and I can testify it’s much harder than it seems!

  2. October 24th, 2009 at 22:47 | #2

    @Zhu I spent quite lot of time on learning calligraphy from my father before going to primary school. He pushed hard on me. But once I went to school, I gave all the skills back to him before long. What a pity!

  3. xtaaxtw
    November 30th, 2009 at 21:43 | #3

    In ancient China, if a woman versed in Qin Qi Shu Hua , then she will be very fond of by all people .http://world-culture-research.org/c.asp?d=15299 Ancient Women generally stay in their own homes, parents or teachers will teach them to study Qin Qi Shu Hua, to improve their self-cultivation, to become ladylike.

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