Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu

Xie Youyu (or Xie Kun) was a Jin Dynasty scholar-official.  One day, the story goes, Emperor Ming asked him how he thought he compared with another official, Yu Liang.  Xie replied that he was no match for Yu Liang when it came to official duties, but he was superior when it came to 'a hill and stream' - imagining himself away from court and finding repose in nature.

Zhao Mengfu, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu,
section of a handscroll, ca. 1287

About a century later, Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345 - ca.406) is said to have painted a portrait of Xie Youyu which was innovative in its use of a landscape setting.  Gu explained this in relation to Xie's statement and said "this gentleman should be placed among hills and streams."  Gu's painting (now lost) may have survived long enough to influence the handscroll painted by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) which is now in Princeton University's Art Museum.  Zhao was himself an official who would have empathised with Xie - though his family were descended from Song  Dynasty emperors, he reluctantly accepted various roles as an official at the new Mongol court. 

James Cahill explains in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Paintings (1997) that Zhao 'reconciled his career with his conscience by adopting the stance of chaoyin, "recluse at court," and expressing it in poems and paintings.  The concept of chaoyin was based on the belief that someone could be engaged in a political career in the outside world while preserving internally the mentality of the recluse, spiritually remote from the contamination of public life.'  Like Xie he could work for the government whilst inwardly inhabiting a 'mind landscape' where it was possible to sit alone and at peace, on a river bank among the trees.


throughstones said...

yes - I believe in the chaoyin way. In harsh surroundings one can be forced into this "double life" to keep soul intact as well as body fed.

I reckon there is a lot of us facing the same dilemma today.

Beautiful scroll.

Plinius said...

Yes, it's certainly an attitude I can empathise with.