Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
...Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
--Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene 1
And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
--Bertholt Brecht, A Worker Reads History
We took in a marvelous but misdirected exhibition at the New York Asia Museum yesterday on "The Artful Recluse" --the scholars who from the cares and distractions of ordinary life, to pursue the discipline of solitary study. The premise is two fold. One arises from the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th Century and its conquest by the (foreign, Manchu) Qing who ruled until 1911. By the standard account, some scholar/poet/bureaucrats responded by retreating from court to country (some others, it appears, did not retreat; some retreated and then came back).
So far so good. But the presentation slips almost without notice into a discussion/considertion of a longer tradition of "the reclusive scholar" which extends perhaps at least as far back as the Tang. So, one part specific, contextualized, "historical;" another, a piece of the grand tradition of Chinese identity, existing as it were out of time.
Once you focus on the grand tradition in it own right, you realize that the notion of "the reclusive scholar" in China is stylized in much the same way as the tradition of the pastoral in the West--the pastoral which extends at least from Theokritus in the late Hellenistic through to Marie Antoinette at the Petite Trianon.
Bringing the larger tradition into focus, you can take a second look at the historic moment of the Chinese17th Century revolution. You realize that these scholars who rejected the cares of the court seem never to have missed a meal. They still have inkstones and leisure to write with them, and boats, and time for quiet idylls on the water. A lot of their painting and poetry seems designed to honor masters from centuries before. And most particularly: one suspects that the Qing conquerors could if they wished have merely squashed these dissenters like a bug.
There's a giveaway in the comments to s particularly interesting display on the place of "the female recluse":
While a number of women were encouraged by their husbands and sons to go into reclusion, unlike men, women did not hold positions in the civil service from which they could withdraw. For women , therefore, reclusion related to the rejection of traditional positions that they might hold on society.... The use of the term recluse could be a way to describe a woman's removal from following the typical feminine roles of wife, concubine, or courtesan ...Translated, for women, reclusion may have marked a rejection of roles (or perhaps better, an escape from particular forms of bondage), still for men, it was just another job.