2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 35: The Culture of Leisure in Medieval China: Sponsored by the Early Medieval China Group

Organizer: Wendy Swartz, Columbia University

Chair: David R. Knechtges, University of Washington

Discussant: Stephen Owen, Harvard University

Keywords: leisure, medieval China, Six Dynasties, Tang, culture.

Leisure was a remarkable, ubiquitous phenomenon in medieval Chinese culture, yet it has rarely been treated in scholarly discourse. It figures in or underlies many literary, historical and cultural documents from the period, revealing a distinct culture of leisure. It cannot be reduced to empty time to be filled or simply defined against work, raising a host of complex issues such as (un)productivity, morality, self-expression and modes of reading. This panel explores the idea and practices of leisure in the Six Dynasties and early Tang through examinations of their formulations in architecture, music and literature.

Jack Chen’s paper will demonstrate the ways in which medieval political and literary discourses on the palace try to reconcile the two antithetical views of the palace: the site of sovereign legitimacy and that of pleasure-making. Alan Berkowitz’s paper will explore the use and significations of the literati musical instrument of choice, the qin, in medieval culture. Robert Ashmore’s paper will examine the experience of reading as "excursion" (you) during the Jin dynasty, paying particular attention to changing conceptions of the relation between seriousness and play. Wendy Swartz’s paper will examine the role played by leisure in Tao Yuanming’s poetic self-construction, taking into account earlier Wei and Jin traditions of leisure that inform Tao’s conception of it.

A Palatial Ethics in Medieval Chinese Literature and Thought?

Jack W. Chen, Wellesley College

There is no architectural form that symbolized imperial authority in premodern China to the extent that the palace did. Whatever the design of the palatial structure, the fact of its construction marked the seat of sovereign power, a physical site that served as the vessel of metaphysical significance. At the same time, however, the palace was a place of political insignificance, especially as it could be built at a remove from the actual locations of productive governance. These "detached palaces" represented imperial leisure, the wasting of sovereign time, an unproductivity that threatened the moral order of empire.

These antithetical imaginations of the palace have informed discussions of sovereignty in both medieval political and literary texts. The crux of the problem has to do with whether the palace was a productive or an unproductive site, a place that anchored sovereign legitimacy or allowed the sovereign to lose himself in self-indulgent pleasures. The aim of this paper is to show how the political and literary discourses on the palace attempt to resolve the contradictory logic of the palace, taking examples from texts of the Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties. A particular emphasis will be placed on historical and literary representations of the detached palace, which may be said to represent the unmooring of sovereignty through the dangerous introduction of leisure.

Playing the Qin in Early Medieval China

Alan Berkowitz, Swarthmore College

Accounts of scholar-officials and other literati, as well as practitioners of reclusion, men of religion, and other notable individuals, often mention proficiency in playing the qin, the premier Chinese musical instrument, a fretless seven-string horizontal zither that can capture eternity and can make a moment timeless. Over the centuries, the qin often has been seen as the emblem par excellence of traditional Chinese civilized culture, the epitome of aesthetic expression, and the exemplification of personal self-cultivation. It also served for some as an individual’s passatempo, providing pleasure in leisure, diversion from bustle and busywork, perhaps also a personal interval of solace, intimacy, or release.

The Excursion and the Play of Reading in Jin Dynasty Literature

Robert Ashmore, University of California, Berkeley

The word you or "excursion" combines an intriguing range of meanings in early-medieval thought and literature, encompassing activities as "playful" as sightseeing excursions and as "serious" as religious trance. The concept of the "excursion" also plays a prominent role in early-medieval thought about perhaps the most central kind of serious play, namely, reading, which is often depicted as a kind of temporal or spatial excursion. This paper will explore a range of Jin dynasty writings on the experience of reading—poems, rhapsodies, prose essays, and exegetical works—with an eye to the ways in which they reflect this notion of reading as excursion, and will consider what this language for describing reading can tell us about changing ideas about the relation between seriousness and play, and between vocation and leisure, in the life of the scholar.

Tao Yuanming’s Uses of Leisure

Wendy Swartz, Columbia University

Leisure plays a crucial role in Tao Yuanming’s (365?–427) poetic self-construction. It is the context for the activities that define his rustic reclusion: drinking wine, observing nature, reading books and writing poetry. It is also the spirit with which he approaches these simple, commonplace activities, finding exquisite delight in them. While leisure is usually defined against office-holding, it is hardly reducible to idle pleasure in Tao’s case, or more generally, in Six Dynasties elite culture. Historical and literary accounts of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove suggest a moral dimension to their revelry: their wine-bibbing and self-abandon result from a sense of frustration and impotence toward the political state of affairs. As well, leisure characterizes the setting in which a major part of the substance of Abstruse Learning (xuanxue) is produced: gentry members of the Wei (220–265) and Jin (265–420) sported with one another, engaging tirelessly in philosophical conversations, discussions of art and competitions of wit. In both cases, leisure moreover sets into relief the free-spiritedness and lofty-mindedness that form the self-definition of the Wei and Jin elite. This paper examines the ways in which Tao Yuanming draws from and responds to these two traditions of leisure in his own practice and representation of it.