Shiren, or scholars, is a generic term referring to the men of letters in ancient China. Shiren acquired knowledge and spread culture; politically they revered their rulers, and intellectually they followed the Dao (the proper Way). They were participants in state government and possessed great tactical skill when dealing with the Way and the ruler. Shiren were also the creators and inheritors of traditional Chinese culture. They were accorded a special status and formed an elite social group in ancient China; their like was found nowhere else in the world.
The social class of shiren emerged quite early. During the Western Zhou (ca. 1100–771 BCE) and the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BCE) periods, scholars occupied a rung between eminent court officials and commoners, which placed them at the lowest level of aristocrat. On the whole they were conservative and believed that the patriarchal clan rules and regulations must be followed; this included following the social class structure of grand master down to commoner. In practice this meant that scholars were subordinate to court officials and careful not to overstep their authority. Scholars enjoyed a fixed amount of “fief land”; the income generated from this land could sufficiently support them. Tenants would farm the land and the scholar was able to earn money without tilling the ground; they reaped but did not sow. Culturally, a scholar was educated in the rites (propriety), music, archery, riding, writing, and arithmetic. The shiren class gradually disintegrated beginning in the mid- to late Spring and Autumn period. The rites collapsed, the music deteriorated, and the patriarchal system crumbled. Amidst this, scholars also lost their livelihoods.
On the other hand, losing their “iron rice bowl” (lifetime security) also undid the shackles of the patriarchal clan system. No longer exploited by court officials, they gained greater personal freedom. At the same time, as powerful states fought against each other for hegemony, an enormous need for intellectuals arose resulting in a large number of private academies. A great number of cultivated scholars emerged from these schools. Furthermore, various political opportunities also contributed to the rise of scholars. Shiren and shi dafu (scholar-officials) are different—the appellation shi dafu was not popular until the middle of the Warring States period (475–221 BCE); it is a combined term for scholar and official. To go from being a scholar to a scholar-official indicates that scholars were not only involved in government, they also entered the political center of historical trends.
Shiren are products of the rites-music system; they were defenders of the rites-music tradition. As a member of the social elite, scholars pursued the goal of “cultivating the self, managing the household, ordering the state, and bringing peace to the world.” An ideal state of the Chinese scholars is captured in the “Jinxin” chapter of Mencius: “Being impoverished yet not losing hold of rightness, the scholar keeps hold of himself. Being successful yet not departing from the Way, he never loses his capacity to inspire hope in the people. When the intentions of the men of antiquity were realized, they conferred benefits on the people. When they were not realized, they cultivated their own persons and became known to the world. When impoverished, they cultivated their own goodness in solitude. When successful, they devoted themselves to encouraging the goodness of everyone in the world.” [trans Irene Bloom, 145-6 (New York: Columbia, 2009)] Shiren’s temperaments and interests often reflected Chinese cultural values. Part of a gentleman’s virtue was often related to having a scholar’s temperaments and interests. For example, by playing the guqin, or ancient zither, one could rectify his mind and improve his character. Furthermore, both calligraphy and painting revealed a scholar’s mental state. Appreciating antiquities was also an interest of scholars. The aesthetics of scholars resided in the ideal of “elegance.” Pursuing elegance, one must refine one’s feelings, such as gentleness and kindness. Although ancient Chinese scholars were the arbiters of elegant culture, they did not reject popular culture either. Instead they advocated the integration of the upper and lower layers of culture; the result of which was something that could be enjoyed by both high- and lowbrows. It could be said that “ordering the state, and bringing peace to the world” and “playing weiqi (a.k.a. “go,” a chess game) and guqin, and engaging in calligraphy and painting” are two poles of a scholar’s life. Drinking was a great pastime among the people of the Tang dynasty (618–907), especially scholars. Thousands of poems were written during that time about drinking. It was said that the great Tang poet Li Bai (701–762) was greatly inspired by drinking; his contemporaries called him the “drunken sage.” Many famous refined men of letters found inspiration when they were drunk; for example, the Tang calligrapher Zhang Xu (ca. 675–759) and the great writer of the Song period, Su Shi (courtesy name Dongpo, 1037–1101). As for musical instruments, more and more scholars gradually identified with guqin, because its timbre is rich and vigorous without being frivolous. As guqin was considered to be able to cultivate virtues, scholars played it to achieve the intergration of their ideology and aesthetic standards. In addition to guqin, weiqi, calligraphy, and painting, some well-known scholars also developed unique hobbies: the Tang poet Bai Juyi (772–846) took delight in all matters pertaining to tea; Su Shi was a specialist in making wine; the great calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303–ca. 361) and his son were skilled in raising geese; the Tang scholar Gu Shiyan was a weiqi master. Ancient Chinese culture distinguishes elegance and vulgarity, elite and popular.
Ancient Chinese shiren aspired to the lofty ideal of “cultivating the self, manging the household, ordering the state, and bringing peace to the world.” However, this was not easily attained. After the Song dynasty (960–1279), the times were chaotic and autocratic rulers took control and grew powerful. This placed scholars under enormous pressure. With no other choices, they had to develop increasingly refined interests to escape the burden of the outside world; hence, their interests are aesthetic, reality-shunning, and non-utilitarian.