CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 13, March 2008


No. 13, March 2008

Zhai, the Scholar's Studio

Guest Editors
John Minford and Claire Roberts

In this the thirteenth issue of China Heritage Quarterly we focus on the Studio—zhai, shuzhai, shufang—the scholar-writer’s place of creative engagement with the written word, or artistic practice. Studios, their names and locations are central to the persona of literary figures in dynastic China. They are also a feature of the intellectual landscape of modern Chinese scholarship, and even of politics.

In this issue we discuss elements of the traditional Studio, and how they have been transmogrified in modern times. John Minford reflects on the complex legacies of the scholars' studio in the context of his work on Pu Songling, the master of the Liao Studio and author of Liaozhai zhiyi, a modern ci-lyric poet, and Wanyan Linqing, a Bannerman noble of the nineteenth century. Claire Roberts introduces us to the history, and the fate, of George E. Morrison’s extraordinary library that was once located on Wangfujing Street in central Beijing. She also considers the crucial role of studios, and their names, in the history of two leading twenthieth-century Chinese artists, Huang Binhong and Li Keran. The Features section of this issue closes with an account of the artist-writer-translator Feng Zikai's studio, Yuanyuan Hall, and its fate.

The Studio would often be inside or connected to a library and so, in the Articles section of this issue, Duncan Campbell discusses two of the most famous late-dynastic libraries (cangshu lou), while Gloria Davies reflects on the virtual libraries of China’s modern netizens. In this section we also include John Minford's discussion of Lionel Giles and his relevance to our own continuing articulation of New Sinology.

Studios and Identity

Our guest editors contribute the following consideration of the Studio. The Studio is a creative space that can exist as the name of a writer, the physical location of a myriad of cultural pursuits, a shifting abode of no fixed address, or an imaginary retreat from the world. The heritage of the Studio is one that remains vital for creative Chinese writers and artists; it continues to enliven the work and mental lives of many. The tradition of naming and celebrating Studios continues—for the wealthy and pretentious who would lay claim to some role in preserving or reinventing Chinese culture, as well as for the harried scholar or writer, many of whom in towns and cities scattered throughout the Chinese world, and internationally, work on in often cramped studies, pursuing the life of the mind and their cultural inheritance. Today, Studio names are used by book-sellers and parvenus, by the newly rich Chinese artists who churn out paintings in large ateliers, minions producing their brand art work en masse for a greedy international market. The Studio can be the crass site of market capitalism, but the ineffable dimension of the Studio as a private space for individual pursuit remains. The Studio exists too in the imaginations and fantasies of those who attempt to appreciate and bring a creative recollection to the world that produced much of the finest literature and art of traditional China. The Studio dwells too in the minds of those who engage with the world of Chinese letters through translation.—GRB

For centuries the world of Chinese letters has been nourished by the sympathetic mingling of individual identities and by the creation of literary and aesthetic communities through shared experience. Typically in a western context, such shared experience would be made explicit, in elaborate correspondences or lengthy journals; in traditional China much of it was encoded briefly and obliquely, in terms that lend themselves with great difficulty to translation. A key term in this process, and the site for much of the interchange, has always been the Studio or zhai 齋. The creation of a Studio marks a turning point. The naming of a studio (and the decoding of that name) can be the key to a door, opening onto the path of an individual's inner life. What a world of meaning and feeling is implied, for example, by the name of the cousin/commentator on the great eighteenth-century novel The Story of the Stone: Studio of the Rouge Inkstone 脂硯齋! Such namings have huge symbolic power. 'The building and naming of gardens or parts of gardens, and of studios, the taking of a new sobriquet, the carving of a seal, were all ways of signalling something more, a new connection or insight, a new stage in one's life. Gardens (as ideas) were part of a larger scheme, just as they were in physical reality the setting for the harmonizing of man and the larger scheme of nature. As in life, so in literature too they acquired an intensely symbolic quality. In The Story of the Stone, Prospect Garden, so lovingly described in chapters 17 and 18, and the various little cottages, hermitages, studios, even rooms provided for its young inhabitants, all reflect the inner life of the novel. One learns as much about a character from the visual design and from the naming of a Studio as one does from that character's words and deeds.'[1]

We are concerned with the studio as a world or realm (jingjie 境界), a place for literature and art, a place where literature and art were written and created, a place in which literary and artistic scenarios were set—a cross between a library, a study and a salon. Certain genres of Chinese literature were virtually inseparable from the studio. We will here explore two of them further: the genre of poetry known as the ci lyric 詞 , and the vast territory of largely unexplored prose literature often designated as biji wenxue 筆記文學, or informal belles letters, ranging from anecdotal accounts of natural and supernatural phenomena to travel journals and descriptions of gardens—fictitious and semi-fictitious, factual and semi-factual. One of the supreme examples of the latter was the collection of 'tales' written in his studio by Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715), the Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.

Pu Songling wrote for his fellow literati in a dense, lyrical style, choosing his words with infinite care, aware of the resonance of every word and phrase. He was speaking to readers steeped in a culture made up of layer upon layer of associated texts and memories, where a thousand assumptions, attitudes and allusions could be taken for granted and played upon, because they were shared. One of the high places of this culture was the studio, that inner sanctum of traditional male leisure.

This 'studio world' was a very special space. It was a physical space, often a pavilion set apart in the garden, screened perhaps by bamboos, a place of seclusion and privilege, where the literati could elaborate their fantasies, surrounded by their favourite knick-knacks (strangely carved inkstones, armrests for calligraphy, paperweights, brushes, seals, incense burners, weird roots and rocks etc.). It is in just such a space as this that many of the experiences and encounters of Strange Talestake place. But the 'Studio' was more than this: it was also a symbolic space, a gestalt. It denoted a whole cultural, spiritual, aesthetic and sensual world. Chinese writers and artists often encoded their own personal sense of identity in a 'studio name'. (Indeed they often had Studio names without having an actual studio.) For example the celebrated painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) named his Studio 'Pinetrees in the Snow'. Pu Songling's own studio name, liao, is virtually untranslatable. It contains several differing and yet interconnected senses: leisure, time on one's hands, a passing enthusiasm or whim, something ephemeral, chit-chat, a desolate feeling of helplessness or inadequacy. It also happens to be the ancient name for a place in Pu Songling's native province of Shandong. The little word is both nothing and everything. It is a mere trifle, a whim, but a trifle and a whim charged with poignant meaning. The studio that bears this name exists now only as a collection of tales, a receptacle fashioned in the crucible of Pu Songling's imagination, a timeless prism affording a view into the inner world of the traditional Chinese scholar-gentleman.[2]

A superb instance of the first genre, perpetuating the studio ambience of the ci -poet, is Soong Shu-kong's loving recreation of his father's world, and of the lineages that led to it through the preceding centuries (see 'The Studio of the Lyric Poet' in Features in this issue).[3] The ci (and by extension the studio) was very much

at the heart of the Chinese sensibility, an essential element in the inner lineage of Chinese literature, one of the indispensable accoutrements of the man of letters, and one of the obligatory skills of that extraordinary phenomenon, the sing-song girl. The ci has haunted their emotional shadowlands, spelling out the cultural space inhabited by the scholar gentleman, his private liaisons and fantasies, his tenuous memories of experiences and half-experiences, his fragments of dreams. Some would say that the ci is one of China's best kept secrets—an encoded treasure-house of memory kept hidden away in a secluded studio, down a long and winding path strewn with indecipherable symbols and tantalizing clues.[4]

The writer of lyric verse and the writer of 'strange tales' were the inhabitants par excellence of the Chinese Studio.

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

Pu Songling, in many of his extraordinary tales, exploits the poignancy and delicate eroticism of the Studio setting to superb effect. In the extended story 'Grace and Pine' (21 in the Penguin Classics collection, illustration p. 81), we find the young scholar Kong Xueli in a garden pavilion of the Shan mansion, where he has taken to pursuing his studies with his friend Huangfu. But as time goes by he begins to suffer from a strange growth on his chest, 'the size of a peach, then a large bowl.His friend's young sister, the beautiful thirteen-year-old Grace, with a sparkle in her eyes and a figure as supple and lithe as a young willow, comes to visit him in the pavilion.She has healing powers, and 'a little coyly, she rolls back her sleeves and begins to take his pulse.' He is cured. They enter into a discrete but intimate relationship, but he finds himself yearning more and more for her beauty, abandoning his books and sitting for hours musing on nothing, listless and dead to the world.' Of course, she and her entire family are foxes.

In the powerful tale, 'The Painted Skin' (34 in the collection, illustration p. 128), the Studio is a more darkly haunted place. The bewitched Wang returns to his studio (which in this case is clearly residential—like so many of the studio-cottages in The Story of the Stone—and has its own surrounding wall, allowing Wang to have an independent space within which he can conduct his fatal affair without his wife interfering—although the devoted and forgiving wife ultimately has to save him from his own folly!) to find the door barred. He was unable to enter. His suspicions now genuinely aroused, he clambered into the courtyard through a hole in the wall, only to find that the inner door was also closed. Creeping stealthily up to a window, he peeped through and saw the most hideous sight, a green-faced monster, a ghoul with great jagged teeth like a saw, leaning over a human pelt, the skin of an entire human body, spread on the bed—on his bed.

In 'Dragon Dormant' (62, illustration p. 265) the scholar-gentleman's epiphany takes place in a study/studio on an upper floor, as Commissioner Qu is reading (fatal mistake!) in the deepening gloom brought on by a heavy rain. As he reads a little creature, bright as a glow-worm, wriggles its way (out of his book) on to his desk. Here the magical power contained within the scholar's library of books, and the latent energy contained within the written Chinese character, finds powerful expression.

The tale 'The Little Mandarin' (49, illustration p.201) is a slighter affair, but equally fascinating. Here the Studio is a setting for hallucination, halfway between waking and dreaming. The Hanlin Academician was 'dozing in his study during the daytime, when he saw a little procession filing through the room...' In 'Butterfly' (69, illustration p. 301), the grotto/Studio, hollowed out of the rock, becomes a tantalizing place for supernatural seduction, while in 'Waiting Room for Death' (96, illustration p. 406) the Studio/hermitage by the pond is the locale for an encounter with a strange itinerant monk.

The literary studio (in its many variations—cottage, hermitage, library, pavilion) was the perfect architectural device for the Chinese writer of fiction. It was a space that could mirror and thus evoke the personality of a character. At the same time it was a space wherein the drama could be enacted that allowed that personality and individuality to enfold. Nearly a century after Pu Songling and his series of over five hundred miniatures, Cao Xueqin created a vaster and more intricate architectonic garden structure for his fictional masterpiece, Prospect Garden, mentioned above, full of little studios or cottages, within which his dramatis personae of refined teenagers dwelled. Each miniature residence was a personal world exquisitely designed to reflect the resident's character. For the melancholic Lin Daiyu, the Naiad's House, with its swaying bamboos; for the complex Jia Baoyu, the House of Green Delights, with its intricate lattice-work and mirrors; for responsible, virtuous Xue Baochai, the thrifty modesty of All-spice Court.

The Studio Remembered

The Studio remembered and described is often a site for nostalgia and desolation. The great Pu Songling, in his magnificent Preface to Strange Tales, introduces himself to his readers with just such a melancholy evocation:

Midnight finds me
Here in this desolate studio
By the dim light
Of my flickering lamp
Fashioning my tales
At this ice-cold table...
I drink to propel my pen,
But succeed only inventing
My spleen,
My lonely anguish.
Is it not a sad thing,
To find expression thus?
Alas! I am but
A bird
Trembling at the winter frost,
Vainly seeking shelter in the tree;
An insect
Crying at the autumn moon,
Feebly hugging the door for warmth.
Those who truly know me
Are in the green grove,
They are
At the dark frontier.
[From the 'Author's Preface' to Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio illustration (p.456).]

The Timeless Studio

Today's studio can have many forms, or none. At one extreme, at its most abstract, it can be the formless studio of the mind, the personal universe that surrounds the individual, furnished and imbued with that person's favourite words, images, tunes, fabrics, vibrating with their unique scent and aura. It can be present, or past, or both, or neither. We all create and recreate our own studios, every minute of every day. To a greater or lesser extent, we may share them, or we may lock ourselves away, maintaining them as bastions of privacy in an increasingly public world. We open and close the studio doors. These studios are an extrusion of our selves; they are of us, but do not belong to us. As Liang Shiqiu remarked, 'I don't own my cottage; I am merely one of its tenants.'

Today's studio, and the constantly shifting heritage of those scholar's studios of old, may be something as banal as a laptop computer, that most versatile of modern mobile studios, seated at which the writer feels at home and creates home (wherever or whatever that may be). A less electronically-minded individual, like the peripatetic Hong Kong writer Leung Ping-kwan 梁秉君 (a present-day practitioner of the perennial art of biji wenxue), carts his personal studio around with him more literally in a rucksack, like a snail's shell, trundling bundles of unfinished manuscripts and unanswered letters from port to port (and often losing them during his explorations, in particularly in such unreliable ports such as Marseilles!), resting from time to time to scribble a post-card or two in a makeshift studio/café (for example, in a Prague sidestreet, which then becomes an intrinsic part of the literary product, 'Postcards from Prague'), or pausing in some bar down a dark alley to catch breath, to celebrate the moment with a motley group of friends in this their temporary home.

His is a genuine perpetuation of the timeless and quintessentially Chinese (but strangely universal) world of the studio-picnic, the meeting of true and like minds, the sharing of hardly won identities, the celebration of a fragile community, fighting off the dark, struggling to conjure away the ever encroaching barbarism of our age with a few poignant phrases.

It's late at night now. Outside the streets are empty and desolate. But we can still sit here, we can still linger awhile amid the lights and voices, drunk on the illusion of this warm and joyous moment. (From Leung's story 'Postcolonial Affairs of Food and the Heart'.)


1. John Minford, 'The Chinese garden: death of a symbol,' in Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, Special Issue: Chinese Gardens, edited by Stanislaus Fung and John Makeham, vol.18, no.3 (July-September 1998), p.257.

2. John Minford, Introduction to Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006, pp.xix-xx.

3. Dennie Soong and Soong Shu-kong, eds., The Cultural world of a Ci Poet, catalogue for an exhibition held at the University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, 9 August-24 September 2006; and at the National Museum of History, Taipei, 13 July-12 August 2007.

4. John Minford, Introduction to The Cultural World of a Ci Poet, p.ix.