2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Between Ya (Refinement) and Su (Vulgarity):
The Popularization of Connoisseurship
Culture in the Late Ming

Hung-tai Wang

Department of History, National Chi Nan University

The prevalence of wenren wenhua (literati culture) was a key development of the Ming-Qing period, a development in which the connoisseurship of objects—antiques, calligraphy, and paintings—played a central role. This article examines this culture of connoisseurship in the context of social life, observing how the passion for objects traveled across different social classes and how its meanings were renegotiated in the process. By revealing a dynamic development driven by the circulation and appreciation of objects, we will be able to achieve a better understanding of the formation and evolution of literati culture.

In brief, a key element of literati culture lay in its construction of a world of ya (elegance) through the connoisseurship of objects. Despite the unworldly implications of ya, this culture was in fact deeply embedded in a highly commercialized market economy, which marked a sharp turning point in the development of boya wenhua (博雅文化, a culture of learning and refinement) that can be traced as far back as the Song dynasty. In the late Ming social environment where literati and merchants exhibited unprecedentedly close association, the notions of ya (refinement) and su (vulgarity) became inherently entangled and their connotations open to constant revision. On the one hand, literati profited from the wealth that merchants invested to imitate their elegant lifestyle. On the other hand, the same group of cultural elites also worked to constantly revise their practices of ya so that a clear distinction between elites and their aspiring imitators could be maintained. Therefore, the apparent dichotomy of ya and su in fact masked the fact that the boundary between “artifacts” and “commodities” was shifting and unstable. In this sense, the dialectics between ya and su offer us a window to study how the intersection between market economy and elite cultural practice became the driving force for the development of literati culture in the Ming-Qing period.


Keywords: literati culture, connoisseur culture, connoisseurship, secularization, popularization