A silk sleeve gently flows in the air, following the artists' hand while they sketch a gentle brushstroke over the cream-colored paper slit. A soft voice recites a poem while the elusive sound of Gu Zhen (古镇) fills the air with the hidden energy of the flowing rivers and the tranquility of the lush mountainous hills.
A Gathering of Literati, or Ya Ji (雅集), is an outstanding Chinese tradition that dates back millennia. Ever since, it has been a scene of literary, artistic, and poetic inspiration, as well as a birthplace for outstanding creations from some of the empire's most recognized poets, artists, and literati. The gatherings provided a refined space where literary people could gather, share ideas, and find inspiration on their path to self-cultivation and accomplishment.
Yaji has evolved with the spirit of times. It remains ever so popular nowadays, providing a much-needed space for people to get out of the usual mundane routine. In these meetings, people indulge their art-related hobbies, gather with like-minded people, and practice self-accomplishment. In today's post, we'll let you into the history of these distinguished gatherings and see how they evolved in time by attending a Yaji in the 22-million megapolis Shenzhen in the Chinese province Guangdong.
What is Yaji
Gathering of literati, or Yaji (雅集), refers explicitly to gatherings where literati recite or create poetry and have intellectual discussions. They would discuss and exchange knowledge on different subjects and areas of interest.
The main subject of Yaji would revolve around reciting and creating poetry. In the beginning, the ancient scholars would recite poems their predecessors wrote. With time, this took a different turn, where the literati, after reciting the ancient poetry, will create their own versions of it, inspired by the moment. So, along with "reciting poetry" in terms of reenacting the ready-made poetry of the predecessors, Yaji also refers to re-creating ancient poetry according to the time, place, and theme at the gathering.
The history of Yaji
The gathering of literati has an ancient history dating back to the Eastern Jin dynasty – more than 1700 years ago! The term "Yaji", however, appeared much later than that.
There are examples of famous elegant gatherings in Chinese history that featured some of the most prominent scholars and literati at those times. Also, some outstanding pieces of poetry were created, namely at such gatherings. Such an example is the famous "Preface to the Lanting Collection", a creation of Wang Xizhi, also known as the Sage of Chinese calligraphy. This scroll has won the reputation of "the best calligraphy in the world". Another example is the ancient poet Wang Bo (650-676) – one of the "four big Tang poets", who became famous overnight thanks to a poem that he penned on such a gathering during the early Tang dynasty.
The purpose and scene of Yaji
In ancient times, scholars would gather with like-minded peers to converse and look for new ideas and inspiration while training their minds and pursuing a path of self-discovery and accomplishment. Whether amidst pine breezes in the heart of the mountain or in quiet tended gardens on a moonlit night, they'd make tea from spring water, recite, and pen poetry. These intimate get-togethers were known as "gathering of literati" or Yaji (雅集). Ya means "distinguished and refined", while Ji refers to a gathering or a get-together. More than just poetic sessions, these gatherings were rich with art forms like incense burning, painting displays, music, and the tea ceremony.
Yaji provided a space of refined ambiance, where everything and everyone embodied elegance. Alongside poetry, other arts like calligraphy, chess, and music added to the charm.
Yaji arts and practices
From the beginning, the purpose of the gathering of literati revolved around creating poetry. With time, habits, and fashion changes, other arts became part of the surroundings and practices.
Art forms like poetry, music, dance, calligraphy, and painting stand out from common hobbies because they follow specific rules and techniques not easily understood by everyone. Their focus on beauty and intellect sets them apart. This distinct sophistication makes gatherings centered around these arts truly "elegant."
The oldest art that literati practiced during their gatherings, and probably the ultimate reason behind those gatherings in first place, is indeed the reciting and creation of poetry. From ancient times, writing verses has always been seen as a refined and noble activity in China. The verses could be in a free form, or rhymed according to different poetic standards that formed with time. Some would be just a few characters, and others might be much longer. They could express a particular sentiment, convey a spiritual pursuit, or describe a natural scene among other subjects. Poetry was not unheard of as a means to please or even flatter the people in power.
Along with chess, calligraphy, and painting, music forms the four accomplishments of the gentleman, or "Four Friends of Literary Men". It has been highly regarded since ancient times (the Chinese national instrument, guqin 古琴, is around 3500 years old!). Playing music is seen as a way for literati to cultivate their moral character. The musical instrument embodies elegance and graceful spirit and turns into a natural complement to a literati gathering.
Another art of Antiquity, Chinese chess, often goes together with musical accompaniment at literati gatherings.
There is a saying in China that "Those who are good at harp are knowledgeable and calm, while those who are good at chess are wise and forethinking. Those who are good at calligraphy are the most affectionate and sincere; those who are good at painting are the embodiment of perfection."
Calligraphy is integral to poetry. Most poets who penned their verses also used scrolls to write them down. The particular style of writing characters could convey different emotions. The literati practiced their "shufa", or writing skills, for many years, along with other skills.
Painting enjoyed particular respect among the artistic people. It was also one of the first representations of the gathering of literati through the ages. Some of the most renowned pictures from the period of the Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties are namely representations of refined gatherings of nobles and scholars. Some include famous poets or other historical figures who left a significant mark on Chinese history.
Displaying paintings or calligraphy scrolls at gatherings is an ancient tradition, initially showcasing tea-related art. Over time, especially in the Song Dynasty, the practice expanded to include poems, calligraphy, and other art scrolls. While hanging paintings might seem like a simple act, it's rooted in deep historical significance. Choosing and displaying these pieces requires knowledge and attention to detail. Even during casual events or dinners in the Song Dynasty, elegance was key - from arranging flowers to hanging the right painting.
Burning incense is another art deeply rooted in Antiquity. Starting as a sacrificial ritual, it gradually developed on its own, reaching its heyday in the Song and Yuan dynasties. At the time, dignitaries and literati often gathered together to burn incense. Various books and incense manuals that specialized in studying the origin, tools, and methods of making incense also appeared at this time. Incense burning, together with tea serving, flower arrangement, and hanging scrolls, are called "the four elegant things" that make life pleasant and appealing.
The art of Chinese flower arrangement dates back to before the Sui Dynasty, initially for religious settings. By the Tang Dynasty, it gained popularity in the royal court. However, during the Song Dynasty, it truly flourished among common scholars. Song arrangements were distinct, favoring simplicity and the beauty of clean lines over grandeur. These designs were more than just visual treats; they reflected the arranger's life views and ethics. Often dubbed the "ideal flower", this style deeply influenced future floral designs.
Our favorite subject, in fact, is a later addition to the gathering of literati. Initially, scholars and poets would gather over wine. This tradition started back in the time of Wang Xizhi (303-361). Only in the Tang dynasty tea slowly started to emerge as a separate art, reaching its heyday in the Song dynasty. By then, literati would make thematic tea gatherings, enjoying freshly brewed tea instead of wine. Different forms of serving - and even competitions in making the best tea – developed that added vigor and appeal to the refined gatherings.
Gathering of literati in modern days
A fierce competition and a frantic pace dominate today's society. It's no wonder people too often experience physical and spiritual burnout. The need to nourish one's soul and pursue a spiritual activity has turned people's attention to some ancient traditions. The Antiquity's gathering of literati transformed into the modern reality as spaces for meeting and socializing in refined surroundings, practicing some form of art that cultivates the mind and feeds the spirit outside of the mundane pursuits. We were kindly invited to attend such a gathering by a tea society in the 22-million megapolis of Shenzhen by Lin Laoshi, where she is running a tea school and tea company for quite some years now. Lin Laoshi is a national level tea sommelier and tea arts teacher, a judge in national competitions and a jury in state-level exams for obtaining a Chinese state-certified professional qualification as tea arts specialist or tea sommelier.
Let's see how today's people recreate an ancient atmosphere – if they do – to escape the daily routine and pursue a path of self-cultivation.
The arts of Antiquity today
The gathering was set indoors – the foggy and rainy weather did not allow otherwise. Tables were arranged for all participants, and a couple of tea masters tended to the audience, serving warming red tea.
All participants were strongly encouraged to wear Hanfu – traditional clothing from the Han dynasty, to recreate an authentic atmosphere and add some elegance to the atmosphere.
The meeting started with a lesson on flower arrangement. The teacher created a step-by-step flower installation, discussing every stage with the people leading them through the process.
Unlike creating a traditional, round-shaped bouquet, eastern aesthetics offered an asymmetrical approach, where seemingly disparate elements create a harmonious ensemble that conveys strong emotion through a combination of shapes, colors, and orientations.
A scroll writing followed. Everyone was given a scroll of white paper to practice their calligraphy. Different levels of mastery emerged among the participants. Some imitated the styles of famous calligraphers while writing specific characters. Others followed a more freestyle approach with seemingly leisurely brushstrokes.
All required equal precision and attention to detail. We witnessed a participant who took a good ten minutes to paint only two characters on their scroll. We are talking about simple characters here. Plus, most of the participants were at least middle-aged and had enough writing experience. Still, it turned out that calligraphy is much more than common character writing and requires great concentration and a lot of practice.
Finally, everyone was given a small rectangular piece of colored hard paper, where they had to write their preferred character. This, along with the scrolls, recreated the ancient practice of writing poetry. Without exception, people concentrated on writing blessings and good wishes – peace, tranquility, joy, and ease were among the painted characters.
Next time you make your tea ritual, why not invite a few friends and make your own Yaji? Let us know how it went!
A special thanks to Lin Laoshi for making us part of this outstanding event!