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Peter C. Sturman. ‘Summoning the Recluse’ – The Relevance of an Ancient Theme

At an early stage while working on ‘The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China’, an exhibition showcasing 57 late Ming and early Qing dynasty paintings and calligraphies organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the decision to highlight the theme of reclusion proved prescient. Visiting a private collection in Los Angeles, my colleagues and I were shown an album of calligraphy by the noted late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) cultural figure Chen Jiru (1558-1639). Chen famously burned his scholar’s robes in a public display of disgust against what he saw as the narrowness of the examination system that traditionally led to a successful official career. The calligraphy happened to be a transcription of Zhang Heng’s (78-139) ‘Return to the Field’, one of the classic poems that sings the praises of retirement from official service, and the album thus made tangible Chen’s deliberate efforts to portray himself as a man disengaged from official responsibilities. ‘Perfect for the exhibition,’ I thought.

It was not until a number of months later, however, that we realized the depths of the theme’s relevance. Hye-shim Yi, one of a number of graduate students who helped write entries for the catalogue, submitted an early draft of her study of an album by Fang Hengxian (fl. c. 1647-78). To all appearances, Fang’s album, titled simply Painting and Calligraphy, was a hodge-podge of odds and ends. It consisted of individual paintings of a strangely shaped garden rock that Fang claimed once belonged to the early poet Shen Yue (441-513) (Fig. 1); a staff-bearing wanderer in a suburban landscape; a figure meditating in a cave; lotus; vegetables; a thatched hut in a desolate landscape; and a lengthy essay and poem titled ‘Old Coin’. The leaves’ apparent randomness disappeared with Yi’s discovery of two more that originally belonged to the album: a painting of a pair of rocks and a transcription of the text ‘Dwelling in the Mountains’ by the Southern Song (1127-1279) author Luo Dajing (1196-1242), in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. 
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