Delighting in Objects of the Scholar’s Desk

March 5, 2014 Updated: March 5, 2014

Chinese art dealers Stuart and Barbara Hilbert always felt an affinity for scholar’s desk items, a passion shared by the Imperial family, the extended bureaucracy, the literati, and teachers in traditional China. The Hilberts also have 40 years combined teaching experience at various levels. Barbara has taught Chinese education and Stuart political science with a focus on China.

Scholar’s desk collecting has been considered a minor art in the 20th century—certainly after sculpture, paintings, and porcelain. However, these “minor arts” of the scholar’s desk have quickly morphed into major collecting areas. 

Q: What do you find appealing about collecting scholar’s desk items?
A: Scholar’s desk items are small and are composed of many different materials: bronze, porcelain, bamboo, soapstone, jade, and other materials. All those items could be put into your hand and each would have a different tactile feel, and their imagined or real history would add to the intellectual excitement and pleasure of ownership. 

Imagine using an inkstone in the Qing Dynasty that had an inscription from a famous writer or owner in the Song or Ming Dynasty. Or perhaps it was just a simple inkstone that was passed down through many generations by a particular family. Imagine a nephrite jade sitting on your desk that perhaps was in the shape of a horse with a monkey on its back, forming a rebus that conveyed a message from an admirer or family member that success and elevation in status would be yours in time, and now it conveyed the same message to you as to your ancestors. 

Yes, ancestors, tradition, customs, values, and beliefs that differ across regions all come into play when one looks at a scholar’s desk item. 

The shape of a brush washer, for example, might well convey a deeper meaning to the user. The quality of the carving and material of a seal, not to mention the motif on the seal itself, would convey different meanings to the owner. 

A bronze water dropper with a boy lazily sitting on top of a buffalo would remind the present owner of the importance of agriculture, but more importantly the bucolic and pastoral beauty of the Chinese countryside that most Chinese once lived in. 

A brush rest, made of many different materials, might well remind the user of the five famous historical peaks of China with their ancient associative Buddhist or Taoist values. Perhaps to another it might simply remind them of the deep beauty of mountain peaks throughout the countryside. 

The addition of a brush would certainly help recall the hundreds of years that artists painted famous mountain scenery throughout China, such as Huangshan. 

In sum, Barbara and I have spent most of our lives trying to understand the deep cultural traditions and beauty in Chinese art. We get it. We deeply hope that the youth in the cities of modern China also “get it.” 

Scholar’s art is so much part of the entire history of China that to let it pass into history not fully appreciated would be a great shame. Recent events, however, indicate a deepening appreciation and resurgence in the appreciation of these minor arts. 

Q: Chinese seals seem like an area of collecting that requires additional research on the collector’s part. What does a successful collector of Chinese seals need to know?

A: Chinese seals are extremely numerous since China has always had a large population and seals were used extensively throughout Chinese history. In addition, many officials, families, and artists had multiple seals. This tradition can be seen even in the 20th century. Qi Baishi, for example, actually carved hundreds of his own individual seals. It should be noted that seals come in different sizes and many different kinds of domestic and imported materials. 

Collectors seem to gravitate toward collecting seals of famous historical figures, officials, families, and famous artists. Official seals were often carved in the unyielding and precious jade, although other materials such as silver or gold were sometimes used. Seals of that importance were often handed down in families and treasured. 

There were other materials that were held in high esteem, such as the rare and most desirable yellow “tianhuang” from Fujian Province or the “chicken blood” from Changhua County. 

In some cases, depending on the rarity of the material, a family in need might well polish off the seal in order to sell it in the marketplace. Of course, more common materials would be bronze, bamboo, horn, ivory, or even wood.

In sum, the seal’s historical importance is likely to be a very significant factor to a collector, the material being of secondary concern in such a case. However, since most seals are primarily not of great historical or artistic importance, the material, the condition, and the quality of the carving of the seal itself and any important inscriptions would be essential factors to a collector in valuing a particular seal. 

Of course, many seals are carved in a style that is difficult for the novice or the advanced collector to translate, but that is easily solved. Hundreds of seal carvers in China today still carve and use archaic styles, and they find translating such seals very easy. After that, a collector needs a very deep historical understanding to match the translated seal to the owner who once took great pride in using it!

Q: Please tell us a little about how Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799) influenced scholar’s desk collecting.

A: Qianlong was what we would call today an unrelenting and knowledgeable collector of antiques. He certainly had the means, although he practically bankrupted China with his avid collecting. 

However, in recognition of his exceptional ability to both recognize and collect the best of China’s past antique works, collectors will pay a great premium for any item that was catalogued under his long reign from 1736–1795. 

He not only influenced his extensive court and bureaucracy, but all those who had the means to collect. Qianlong loved scholar’s desk items and often had elaborate boxes made to show them to maximum effect. In addition, The Forbidden Palace not only housed and catalogued China’s artistic past and present, but added to it the elaborate gifts from foreign dignitaries.

During Qianlong’s reign, wonderful artistic items were also made, many at his command. Those items are exceedingly rare and many have resurfaced from the families that had ties to the Western military forces that ransacked Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. 
Qianlong’s personage and influence has so dominated the minds of modern collectors that it seems to have somewhat stymied and slowed the collecting of the fine antiques of the Song and Ming Dynasties—ironically, an antique period that Qianlong actually deeply appreciated and collected with enthusiasm.