Material and Medium: Ivory, wood
Dimensions: Overall: 141 x 100mm (5 9/16 x 3 15/16in.)
Department: Decorative Art
Accession Number: 2007.327
This brush holder is inscribed with verses referring to rivalry among candidates at the civil service exams.
The Emperor Gaozu was the first to form an imperial civil service in 124 BC. Educated officials studied the teachings of the philosopher Confucius at university and were selected by a rigorous examination system. It took many years of study but the top jobs were highly prized and could lead to an appointment as a government minister. China was one of the first civilisations to select government officials by merit.
It was under the Song dynasty (690-1279) that the examinations were open to a wider group of men, rather than just the upper classes. It was a rational career structure with good opportunities for promotion. Set exam texts for the Confucian classics created a new level of scholar-officials. The traditional exams were not abolished until 1905.
Chinese civil service exams used to include writing poetry in stylish calligraphy which were then illustrated with a landscape painting. Calligraphy, poetry and painting were known as the ‘three perfections’. The combination of these skills was considered the height of artistic expression and practitioners became famous.Display Location: