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Companions in solitude

By ZHAO XU in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2021-10-30 11:20
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The scholar-recluse in this 17th-century painting by Chen Hongshou is trailed by his attendant boy carrying a jug of wine. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Some galloped on that path, others faltered and turned to nature for solace," Wang said. "Yet there were others who saw themselves riding a professional and an emotional roller coaster as their fortunes rose and fell, often subjected to factors beyond their own control."

Ensnared by what one famous fourth-century Chinese recluse described as the "dusty net" and buffeted by ever-changing political winds, these scholar-officials developed an even deeper appreciation for a simpler and, ideally, nobler existence.

Nature, which runs parallel to human society, seemed to be able to offer that possibility. "By retreating to nature one declares his intention to live up not to society's expectation but to one's own expectation," Scheier-Dolberg said. "To paint a picture of nature's recluse, or to own one, was almost tantamount to saying that no matter where you were, your mind and your heart belonged to the mountains-moral high ground to which a dignified man must lay claim."

One such person was the 12th-century scholar-official Li Jie, whose hand scroll of an imagined water-facing retirement home is titled Fisherman's Lodge At Mount Xisai. The painting, accompanied by the words of those who felt compelled to put down their thoughts after having studied it, sheds light on a shared dream steeped in idealism. (These words, often themselves masterpieces of calligraphy, are attached to the rear of the painting to form what is known as the colophon.)

"Why fisherman's lodge?" Scheier-Dolberg prompted. "Because a thatched hut, not unlike the wine, had become a symbol for one's dismissal of a regimented, ambition-fueled life and all the luxury that life promised."

Fortunately for Li, his dream was realized around 1184, about 15 years after he enunciated it in painting. So it did for a friend of his named Fan Chengda, a powerful bureaucrat-cum-leading poet who wrote the very first piece of the colophon, which eventually grew so long that someone given the task of mounting the piece felt obliged to split it in two. And in two parts the work is now on view at the museum, quietly taking up the long display cases on both sides of a gallery.

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