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China Elite Culture

Elite culture is often used in comparison with folk culture. It is the culture created, transmitted and shared by high level intellectuals of a society, reflecting their aesthetic tastes, values, and social obligations. Elite culture is also called “high culture”, as the elites were often the privileged (economically, politically, or spiritually) group.

Elite culture, the culture created, transmitted and shared by intellectuals.

Over its long history, the ancient China has developed a distinctly rich and glorious elite culture. China elite culture is reflected in all aspects of the way of life of the elites, taking a variety of forms. Calligraphy, painting, music, weiqi, poetry, wine culture, and flower appreciation (书画琴棋诗酒花,shu hua qin qi shi jiu hua) summarize the most typical content of the ancient Chinese elitist lifestyle. An elite intellectual was expected to be well educated and have a knowledge and good tastes in such fields. He would attend parties with friends of the literary circle, at which all present were to compose poems or couplets, or exchange their ideas or other achievements. He was supposed to maintain a spiritual superiority over the ordinary folk, showing a good upbringing and refined tastes for literature, music, arts, history, and philosophy in whatever he did. Sitting for the imperial civil service exams (科举考试 ke ju kao shi) in the hope of serving the nation was a goal shared by most elites. And a scholarly, academic life featuring studying classics or tutoring, was also admirable given the fact that only a minority of them could land a job in the bureaucratic system. Some other elites opted to lead a reclusive life, indulging in the beauty of nature and freedom. Chinese classic literature, esp. classic novels represented by The Dream of Red Mansions, gives rich details of elitist lifestyles.

A painting illustrating a gathering of intellectuals in ancient China, which involves typical elitist activities like drinking, painting, composing poetry, exchanging ideas, etc.

Elites are the cream of a society, and China elite culture has had irreplaceable contribution to China ancient culture, representing the portion of achievements featuring dignity, elegance, gracefulness, aristocratic spirit, strict moral codes, etc.

Representing the high-end accomplishments of a nation, China elite culture never stood alone from folk culture, as elites are part of the Chinese folk, too. It has kept interacting with the latter in a multitude of ways. Most elements of folk culture were kept in elite culture where they got updated and refined to elitist tastes. For instance, folk festivals are celebrated in intellectual or aristocratic households in generally the same way as in the average family, but often with larger degrees of luxury. And likewise, the Chinese folk looked upwards and tried to imitate the lifestyles of the “upper” class. Confucius, for example, popularized the education that had used to be exclusive to the aristocracy. And Tang Dynasty poetry, as in The Three Hundred Tang Poems, became a necessary program in primary schools of ancient China.


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