Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Four Arts: Polymaths in Imperial China

The Four Arts ( 四藝 in pinyin si yi), or Music-Board Game-Calligraphy-Painting ( 琴棋書畫 qin qi shu hua ), were the traditional four skills that the well-rounded chinese scholar and gentleman was supposed to master, since at least the Tang dynasty (618 CE-907 CE).

The idea of packaging these four traditional Chinese arts together was first mentioned in the writings of Zhāng Yànyuǎn, a polymath who was at once an art historian, a painter, and a calligrapher.

The qi in qin qi shu hua is actually the game of wei qi, or GO. Everyone who has played GO a few times will immediately know why it was made one of the Four Arts: it is a great tool to develop strategy skills (I shall return in another posting to the intriguing connections between GO and Chinese politico-military strategies).

The first time I heard of the Four Arts I was a bit disappointed, as martial arts were not in the list, at least as far as physical training goes. I make no claims to be anything more than an amateurish sinologist, but I will venture an interpretation for this omission. Martial Arts, or wushu,were practised as a way of living only by members of the lower classes, hoping through their prowess and acquired martial skills to make a name for themselves, and ultimately gain a position in the army or as private guards. It is perhaps this association that made wushu unfit for the gentleman's official repertoire. Nevertheless, it is well documented that some noblemen and scholars did get martial art training, as witnessed by the fact that, as late as the nineteen century, kung fu stars such as taijiquan Master Yang Luchan were making a very good living training high-level officers at the imperial court.

I do not know how much of this noble ideal has survived in modern China. I am afraid very little, especially after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. It is nonetheless a testament to the greatness of chinese civilization, and a great example for all candidate renaissance men and women, that such well-balanced polymathy was for so long at the very peak of their educational system.


Greg Pass said...

We know Zheng as the Master of "Five Excellences" — calligraphy, poetry, painting, music, and martial arts — but I believe this phrase predates its 20th century application to Zheng. Research for another day.

Polymathicus said...

Thanks Greg: indeed Professor Zheng was rightly known as the Master of Five Excellences. I too suspect that the expression might be quite old, but I was not able to trace it back to the sources.
I would be obliged if you could some day discover its origin.