The Six Arts of Confucian Scholars

Ariel Tian, Contributor, Pingping Yu, Contributing Translator

If you attended a 2022 Shen Yun performance, you may well remember this scene from The Men’s Classical Chinese Dance—a group of well dressed young men appear, calm and intellectual, yet suddenly they surge with intense vigor as they dance. These dancers epitomized the traditional ideal of the Chinese gentleman. Though masculinity is readily present, they also exude a distinguished scholarly bearing. Refined movements complement explosive technical moves—a balance of the dual forces of yin and yang.

The ancient Confucian scholars were trained in the Six Arts following the guidance of Confucius: Etiquette, Music, Archery, Chariot Riding, Calligraphy and Literature, and Math. The education system based on the Six Arts had a profound impact on China, Japan, and Korea. The unique quality of such well-rounded scholars was well depicted in this dance piece.

Let’s take a look at what each art is about, and perhaps why Confucius urged his students to learn them.


Without understanding and following proper etiquette, or what we often call good manners today, one will lose oneself in society, said Confucius. He said bad manners will lead to the loss of respect and deviation from the proper path. Therefore, Confucius suggested, etiquette is the first subject a person should learn.


In traditional Chinese beliefs, music is the sound of the harmony between heaven and earth. It nurtures one’s characteristics and softens the rigidness of etiquette, and thus brings balance. The Confucian scholars were trained in ancient music made by saints of great virtues.


Archery requires great concentration and a pure mind. It’s not only a skill, but also highlights a gentleman’s grace. The Book of Rites has a great piece of advice on archery: “When the arrow misses the target, reflect on one’s own imperfections, instead of looking for excuses.”

Chariot Riding

Chariot riding to the Confucian scholar is similar to horseback riding to the European gentleman. The requirements were strict: The sound of the running chariot should sync well with the singing of a Luan bird; the driver should be able to navigate the chariot along a curved bank without falling into the water; the driver should abide by appropriate etiquette when driving by the Emperor; the chariot rider should be able to ride through a narrow tunnel at full speed, etc.

Calligraphy and literature

A scholar’s writing must be beautiful in shape and in content. One’s writing mirrors one’s heart and character. Like the other arts, writing is a way to cultivate the inner soul.


This original math is more than equations. It originated from the Book of Change (Zhou Yi), a profound study to gain insights into the future and the past through different configurations of the universe. 

Whether to practice writing or sports, the ancient Confucian scholars started by purifying and harmonizing oneself through sitting in meditation. In fact, practitioners of all arts and industries followed this principle: artists, writers, and craftsmen all had such deep respect for their studies that they usually lit some incense and meditated to enter the state of a pure mind and righteous heart before they started working or studying. Elevated inner qualities made possible the enhancement of skills, and that’s how masterpieces were created.

Shen Yun Collections products are inspired by the spirit of the Confucian scholars. Our designers and staff engage in daily meditation and seek to cultivate themselves to their most noble and beautiful state. We hope to bring new inspiration and beauty to your life.

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