Theses Doctoral

Arts, Leisure, and the Construction of “Gentlemanly” (shi 士) Identities in 7th–14th Century China

Berge-Becker, Zachary

Historians regularly conceive of “gentlemen” (shi 士) in 7th–14th century China as men belonging to an elite social stratum, defined by their study of the classical and literary canons, participation in the civil service examinations, officeholding in the imperial bureaucracy, engagement in various literary or intellectual undertakings, hereditary status from a patriline, or connection to certain marriage, kinship, or friendship networks. This dissertation seeks to expand as well as complicate this perception of “gentlemen” as a social category, by understanding the label as referring not to an elite social stratum but to an identity, internalized and enacted in a variety of ways by men in low and high social positions alike. Using this framework to analyze the construction of “gentlemanly” identities in various arts and activities that served as leisure for some and livelihoods for others, this dissertation reveals a significant expansion in the repertory of signals and strategies used to create and perform “gentlemanly” identities in these fields, reshaping what it meant to be a “gentleman” in middle period China.

Each chapter draws upon extensive source material from libraries, digital databases, and museums, to examine processes of identity construction and presentation in a series of different arts or activities in which both the “gentlemanly” and “non-gentlemanly” participated: painting, music making, practicing medicine, divining, farming and gardening, fishing and woodcutting, and playing the board game weiqi 圍棋 (also known as go). In each of these fields, between the 7th and 14th centuries, new “gentlemanly” identity signals were constructed to distinguish the “gentlemanly” sort from social categories like “artisan” (gong 工) that they viewed as inferior. New kinds of “gentlemen” like the “qin-zither gentleman” (qinshi 琴士), “painting gentleman” (huashi 畫士), and “classicist physician” (ruyi 儒醫) emerged; older labels like “recluse” (yinshi 隱士) expanded to encompass a wider variety of ways of living. New offices and titles at court were created that could signal membership in “gentlemanly” communities despite a close connection with arts like medicine or painting. And beyond these labels, men developed new “gentlemanly” identities through distinct modes of engagement in the respective field: the way one divined others’ fates, the strategies one used to win a board game, the metaphysical elements and ideals expressed in one’s art and discursive artistic judgments, the tools one didn’t use when fishing, and so on. These identity signals were situational, and each chapter draws upon examples of disagreement or doubt over the inclusion or exclusion of certain men as “gentlemen” to explore instances in which such signals were performed with varying degrees of efficacy.

In my conclusion, I discuss the connection between many of these “gentlemanly” identity signals and an emerging form of social snobbery that I call the “discourse of ‘gentlemanly’ expertise.” In the 7th century and earlier, if the “gentlemanly” sort compared themselves to “artisans,” it would almost certainly be based on what they did. However, around the 9th–13th centuries, the “gentlemanly” sort became more actively involved (or vocal about their involvement) in the arts, and started to contrast their own practice and appreciation of these arts more actively with the (ostensibly inferior) practice and appreciation of “non-gentlemanly” sorts. In doing so, they began to define and distinguish themselves not by what they did, but by how they did it. They did not stop with simply articulating “gentlemanly” practices as different but equally good; they asserted that their practices and products were superior, claiming expertise in these fields on the basis of their ethical values, cultural norms, aesthetic preferences, and abstract knowledge of the cosmos and the ineffable “Way” (Dao 道). I argue that, ironically, this snobbish discourse of social distinction actually made it increasingly possible for people earning a livelihood in various arts to enact “gentlemanly” identities, by associating symbolic capital with the demonstration or depiction of “gentlemanly” modes of engagement.

By focusing on the increasing number of ways in which “gentlemanly” identities were constructed and performed in 7th–14th century China, this dissertation offers insight into how individuals and groups made decisions of inclusion or exclusion, offered or obtained access to resources, and developed a sense of self and place in society. In doing so, it enriches our understandings of both the social forces shaping the middle period Chinese social world, and the individuals and groups who inhabited it.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for BergeBecker_columbia_0054D_17998.pdf BergeBecker_columbia_0054D_17998.pdf application/pdf 6.04 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Hymes, Robert Paul
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 26, 2023