Reclusion as Socio-cultural Engagement in Pre-modern China and Japan

Title: 1161 | Reclusion as Socio-cultural Engagement in Pre-modern China and Japan
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Literature
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yuefan Wang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States (organizer, presenter)
Kikue Kotani, Nihon University, Japan (presenter)
Qi Shi, Shanghai Theatre Academy, China (presenter)
Yuan Zhang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States (chair, presenter)


There is a common perception that reclusion indicates withdrawal from the world into a life of seclusion. This, however, does not necessarily imply a complete renunciation of public affairs. Operating within the substantial discourse constructed by previous reclusive prototype, those who withdrew play active roles within the world. Some even participate in the most engaging activities of the times. Interwoven with complex socio-cultural contexts, the realization of reclusion requires outward engagements in varied aspects. In many circumstances, considerable resources are invested to "ground" such ideal even utopian hermitage materially. Artful recluses apt at poetic creation involve themselves in the production of literary reputation, or in publication business that emerged in imperial times. The circulation of their works further entrenches the vocabulary of reclusion. Female intellectuals, by adopting these words and images, enter the existed patriarchal discourse of reclusion and play a visible role.

Seeing reclusion as a way of life, the five papers in this panel will respectively focus on one or multiple related practices from perspectives including literature, history, art history, and religion in an attempt to reflect on the East Asian at the crossroads. We intend to demonstrate that, through practicing these activities, recluses and the discourse of reclusion go beyond the portray of idealized hermitage to an embracement of diverse life pursuits. In another word, the socio-cultural connotation of reclusion is always in a process of forming, being redefined and extended by practitioners who adopt existed vocabulary to strategically engage in their lived situation.

Panel Abstracts:
Constructing the Female Recluse in the Ming Dynasty: The Case of the Mingyuan shigui (Anthology of Famous Women’s Poetry)
Reclusion, as a cultural concept, underwent significant modification and expansion in Ming and Qing periods. One of the most remarkable phenomena is the boom of self-fashioned female recluses and their writings. Generally acknowledged as an anthology that takes the fundamental and central position in the history of anthologies of women’s poetry, the Mingyuan shigui (Anthology of Famous Women’s Poetry), attributed to Zhong Xing (1574–1625?), serves as an invaluable material in presenting the early stage of the formation of the female recluse. Focusing on the poems of Ming women poets in the last twelve juan (j. 25-36) of the anthology, this paper will probe the construction of the female recluse in the Ming time (1368-1644). The anthology is originally published to prevent the degeneration of poetry of Ming literati who self-identified as recluses while engaged in literary activities as profit-driven businesses. Despite that the anthology is about women’s poetry, but not for women’s writing, the evaluation criteria of poetry that Zhong Xing proposes in the preface offer a theoretical model for reading women’s verses and positive guidance for constructing the female recluse. Adopting Daoist or Buddhist titles, women poets allude to classical male reclusive figures and use both feminine and non-feminine tones in their verses, distinguishing their works from those of the male recluse. The inclusion of feminine tone in “masculine” reclusive writing indicates that reclusion is no longer an exclusive cultural concept dominated by men but rather can, be appropriated by women.

The Recluse on the Road: Doubled Retreat of the Female Kanshi Poet Hara Saihin
After her father’s death, Hara Saihin (1798-1859) left Kyushu for Edo alone to fulfill his last wish: “You must not return until you succeed.” Thus, she carried on her father’s lifestyle and began her lonely roaming as a female poet of Kanshi (poems written in Classical Chinese by Japanese). In Saihin’s time, a life of wandering and poetry had been highly idealized as a model of reclusive behavior. However, regardless of its wide social acknowledgment, such a lifestyle could hardly be performed by women. Hardships on the journey were the least difficulty Saihin had encountered. Both political restrictions and safety issues forced women of Edo period to stay domestically. Therefore, Saihin traveled in disguise, dressed in men’s wear with a sword on waist. By doing so, she retreated from her gendered identity, an inner chamber female, in order to engage in the larger discourse of recluse, namely, a deliberate renunciation of worldly concerns. This paper, through examining Saihin’s collections of poems and proses, argues that the connotation of her reclusion is doubled. On the one hand, she constructed her image as a poetic recluse renounced of mundane affairs including her female propriety. She drunk wine, enjoying social interactions with local communities on her road. On the other hand, Saihin withdrew inward, isolating her silent female identity from reclusive behavior she had performed. Saihin’s writings became a form of wordless critique to the dominated social regulations of her time.

From Reclusion to Publication Industry: The Reproduction of the “South Neighbor” Painting in the Late Imperial Period
Composed by Du Fu (712-770), the poem “South Neighbor” depicted the poet’s visit to his reclusive neighbor. Du’s writing on the picturesque scenery and the friendship between recluses was so admirable that the content of the “South Neighbor” was constantly visualized in later literati paintings. On the paintings, couplets or the entire poem were inscribed. It is acknowledged that the themes of reclusion and friendship are traditionally favored by literati. Therefore, “South Neighbor” paintings have been idealized as representative works of reclusive culture in the Ming dynasty, and were widely circulated among gentries, Buddhists, even merchants. Noticeably, such a prevalence of “South Neighbor” paintings also influenced the publication industry. One of these paintings was incorporated into a special booklet in which many other literati paintings inscribed with verses were collected. Nevertheless, how to explain the sudden boom of the reproduction of “South Neighbor” paintings? How did artistic works interact with socio-cultural changes in late imperial China? The presenter argues that the publication of the collection of paintings with poetic inscriptions made it possible for the “South Neighbor” painting to reach a wider audience. Changes of some details in the painting were made in the process of publication. More than being appreciated as an aesthetic work by men of letters, it was a narrative painting that fit the taste of the ordinary. This further served as a foundation for the formation of a commercial chain of the paintings. Thus, paintings originally representing the friendship of recluses deeply engaged in socio-cultural activities.

Never Die Alone: Exemplary Buddhist Death in Medieval China
In both doctrinal and didactic literature, the foremost condition for achieving rebirth in the Buddha’s pure land is the cultivation of “despising this mundane world”. This discourse of world rejection fits into even the most strict definition of “reclusion.” However, biographies of those said to have achieved rebirth in Buddha’s realm indicate a more socially engaged profile. This paper will explore collections of Buddhist deathbed records in Medieval China, with attention to the paradox that the Buddhist hermits, instead of dying alone in seclusion, pass on in a rather spectacular style. Typically, they would reassemble disciples whose number may in hundreds. After announcing the exact date of rebirth, they enter a meditative state. The following auspicious signs, such as earthquake, purple cloud, radiant light or rain of blossoms verify the successful rebirth. In some cases, they report visions of Buddha’s welcoming decent, or they fly to the sky and head west. There might also be audiences who moved into tears. In this paper, deathbed accounts are understood as public expectations of an ideal rebirth and correspondingly editorial embellishment to authenticate deathbed situations. This paper argues that in effect, exemplary manners of death are required to be witnessed and interpreted in order to validate the specific Buddhist teachings, deeds in life and deathbed practices are worth following by guaranteeing a rebirth in the Buddha’s land. In another word, the ideal deathbed becomes a public ritual performance for both the deceased and survivors to engage in and construct

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