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Seokwon Choi. Man with a Staff: Zeng Jing and Image-making in Late-Ming Painting

In the winter of 1621, the celebrated portrait specialist Zeng Jing (1564-1647) painted a full-figure image of Pan Qintai, a scholar and poet of Suzhou who was known for his skill as a player of the qin zither (Qintai, meaning ‘qin stand’ or ‘terrace for qin playing’, was Pan’s sobriquet) (Fig. 1). Zeng, a professional portraitist active in the Jiangnan region south of the lower reaches of the Yangzi river, depicted the Suzhou gentleman as a non-degree holder wearing a white cotton robe, black informal headgear and sandals. Surrounding the figure are the inscriptions of seven Jiangnan scholars that extol his rustic life. Together with these encomia, Zeng’s portrait constitutes a pictorial and literary expression of the Jiangnan literati’s shared ideal of reclusion during a time of political decline and social uncertainty. As they witnessed their country become politically and socially paralysed, the Jiangnan literati grew increasingly preoccupied with fashioning identities capable of expressing their ideals. With staff in hand, Pan presents the quintessential image of the recluse as envisioned in late Ming dynasty (c. 1550-1644) China, and for this reason Zeng’s portrait occupies a key place in the exhibition ‘The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China’, organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. His painting is a veritable icon, reflecting the ideals and anxieties of one of the most critical, as well as creative, periods of Chinese cultural history.

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