The Poetics and Politics of Withdrawal: cultural negotiations of dynastic change in seventeenth-century China
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2021
This thesis explores modalities of withdrawal by individuals from educated elites in seventeenth-century China when faced with the catastrophe of dynastic transition. Examining how withdrawal was enacted, manipulated, and negotiated through cultural productions, it attempts to show that this process led to new forms of withdrawal that went beyond the pre-established norms and models for the life of such “remnant subjects” in a new dynasty. Drawing upon various literary and artistic sources, three case studies are examined: Qi Biaojia’s 祁彪佳 (1602-1645) Garden of Mountain Yu and his midnight-suicide staged in it; Gong Xian’s 龔賢 (1617-1689) dark-toned landscape and cultivation of his bamboo thicket garden; and Dong Yue’s 董説 (1620-1686) obsession with dreaming and writing, and his boating life as a wandering monk during his later years. The case studies consider the correspondence between each figure’s cultural practices and their individualized way of withdrawal by developing the concept of a “mediate landscape”. In Qi Biaojia’s aesthetic appreciation of his private garden, he seemed to have projected his theatrical spectatorship as a drama critique onto his garden. He saw the garden elements, visitors, and sometimes even his alter ego, as spectacles or actors on the stage of garden, during which he could enjoy a capacity for simultaneous impassioned participation and dispassionate viewing. Upon the fall of Nanjing, Qi drowned himself in the garden lake in the middle of the night—his poetic self-killing is particular in terms of its theatrical characteristics, which can be observed not only in the dramatic gesture of his actual suicide but also in his actions prior to the act. In Qi Biaojia’s case, the theatricalized garden is the mediate landscape that stages his political death, which I see as one modality of withdrawal, as well as the poetic farewells performed by the “theatrical self” of the garden owner. Gong Xian’s landscape paintings feature a heavy accumulation of ink and dense composition of elements, both of which actualise the substantiality of his landscape. Although dark and sombre, his thematic depiction of “a thousand peaks and myriad ravines” represents his ideal landscape, one opposed to the common expression of frustration and sorrow usually shared in the representation of landscape by Ming remnants, while the “solitary household” in it indicates an ideal of lived withdrawal. In this case, I regard the substantial landscape as the mediate landscape by which Gong’s ideal of withdrawal is accomplished in both the paintings and reality: the solitary homes in deep mountains depicted in his paintings echo his own gated and bamboothicket garden at the foot of the mountain. Attracted by the changefulness of dreams, Dong Yue recorded his own dreams and constructed an imaginative Land of Dreams through systematic writing, which stabilised a therapeutic withdrawal from the harsh realities of the time. After dynastic change, with the assistance of Buddhist thinking, Dong came to realize how his previous cultural practices on dreams contradicted with the nature of dreams, which lies in the mutability of illusions. Understanding that only unobstructed movement and transformation could lead to his ideal withdrawal, in his late years Dong began a self-initiated exile on a boat. In this case, the transient world of dreams acts as the mediate landscape that leads eventually to Dong Yue’s withdrawal on a rootless boat. The conclusion summarizes the thesis from two perspectives: the poetics and politics of individual escape; and the way space and the body were imagined in the mediate landscape. Finally, it explores several significant issues arising from the case studies with a view to shedding new light on a number of binary relations – including the illusory and the real, obsession and self-cultivation, and the manifest and the hidden – that have informed discussion of the Ming-Qing transition.