The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China


The seventeenth century was one of the most dramatic and crisis-filled periods of China's long history. Turbulent decades filled with droughts and floods, peasant uprisings, the corruption of powerful eunuchs at court, and foreign threats to national borders led to the collapse of the last native Chinese imperial dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644). This was followed by traumatic years of foreign conquest by the Manchus, who established the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). It was also an era of extraordinary artistic achievement.

At the forefront of these historic changes were China's educated elite, the scholar-officials known as literati (wenren), who managed the empire's extensive governmental bureaucracy. These public servants — who had to pass rigorous exams in history, literature, and philosophy so they could hold office — were also some of China’s most accomplished poets, calligraphers, and painters. These arbiters of taste were threatened by both the politics of the seventeenth century as well as the rise of a merchant class seeking to join what the literati considered their own sophisticated social milieu.

The paintings in this exhibition offer a fascinating glimpse into the private world of these scholar-painters. Deeply affected by the crises of their times, many sought solace in the ancient ideal of withdrawal or reclusion. They retreated either literally or figuratively from serving a court filled with treacherous intrigue to private lives devoted to the time-honored consolations and pleasures found in nature, art, and learning.

For these literati, reclusion could be an actual retreat into the mountains or often just a state of mind. They could pursue a life of reclusion on their own or within the company of other like-minded friends. Many of their paintings depict traditional Chinese imagery of journeys into vast landscapes or explorations of the natural world, but others are journeys of self-reflection, giving voice to personal thoughts and feelings in ways that are unprecedented in Chinese art.

As seen in the exhibition, the poems and texts that often accompany the paintings, written in masterful calligraphy, take us ever deeper into the private world of these "artful recluses." Their response to the challenging times in which they lived can be seen in the alternate worlds they created in their art. These are worlds as subtle and elegant as those who created them, lofty realms of timeless beauty, intellect, and complex emotions.

Peter C. Sturman and Susan Tai
Exhibition Curators

A related 320-page publication accompanies the exhibition. Purchase a copy through AsiaStore.

Summoning the Recluse: Landscape as Refuge

Xiang Shengmo (1597–1658). Summoning the Recluse (detail), 1625–1626. Ink on paper, handscroll. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund, 60.29.2.


The recluse holds an unusual status in traditional Chinese culture. Reclusion, the act of withdrawal from human society to seek spiritual, moral, and aesthetic solace in nature, was an ancient and honorable tradition in China. But it could also be a political statement: refusing a ruler’s “summons” to serve was potentially a critique on his rulership. The concept of reclusion as both a personal and political statement remained a powerful element in Chinese politics and culture until modern times. The 17th-century painting and calligraphy on view in these galleries were created to engage the viewer in a dialogue of disengagement during a period of political upheaval and social unrest.

Landscape, a subject that required no explanation to suggest an alternate existence removed from worldly troubles, is an obvious choice for artists wanting to bring to mind the notion of reclusion. Other popular images like the solitary fisherman, the lone woodcutter descending a path, the donkey rider entering the wilderness, the mountain wanderer with his staff, the gentleman farmer overseeing gardens and fields, and the flower seeker are all non-specific but also familiar images evoking the concept of reclusion in Chinese art.

Historical hero-recluses like the short-tempered Tao Yuanming (365?–427), who chose to withdraw to his rural home rather than “bend at the waist” for rice, are evoked time and again in paintings and poems. A poet with profound thoughts, forthright language, and a taste for wine, Tao recognized that true disengagement was a state of mind: 

I built my hut in the human realm
Yet hear no clamor of horse and carriage.
You ask how this is possible:
With the mind detached, one’s place is remote.

The idea that true disengagement could be achieved anywhere led many to present themselves as men of the hills while still involved in worldly affairs. Reclusion was synonymous with so called lofty values such as integrity, refinement, and enlightenment — ideals that were championed in painting and poetry.

Chen Jiru and Dong Qichang: The Presence of the Past

Dong Qichang(1555–1636). Streams and Mountains in Rain from the album Contemplating the Dao with Emotions Cleansed, c. 1610.Ink and color on gold paper, album of eight paintings. Private collection.


The crises of the late Ming period were the catalyst for revived interest in the ancient model of the recluse. A key figure in the rise of its popularity was the writer and noted connoisseur of art Chen Jiru (1558–1639), who, after failing to pass the civil service exams, famously burned his scholar’s robes and trumpeted the virtues of mountain-dwelling. Ironically, this self-proclaimed recluse led a remarkably visible life, burnishing his image as a lofty man of culture to help market his books for the public.

Chen and his lifelong friend Dong Qichang (1555–1636), along with other like-minded friends and associates including Xiang Shenmo (1597–1658) and Li Rihua (1565–1635) whose paintings, calligraphy, and/or inscriptions appear in this gallery, became passionate students of the writings and paintings of famous artists of the past, many of whom were also models of the ideal of withdrawal.

Dong, unlike Chen, did serve as an official, but he resigned from office several times in order to avoid political persecution. He came to be a hugely influential advocate of the importance of studying the art of the past. His ideas about a correct painting tradition based on lives and works of specific old masters became the orthodox standard. Its influence on Chinese art was enormous and can still be felt today.

For Chen, Dong, and their friends, immersion in the past was itself a form of reclusion — seeking a higher spiritual and aesthetic realm not only in nature, but in art.

1644: A Landscape Transformed

The year 1644 is a time of grim associations in Chinese history. Peasant rebellions stoked by famine ravaged much of the country and in May, rebel forces stormed the capital at Beijing. The Ming emperor hanged himself from a tree behind the Forbidden City.

In the north, the Manchus took advantage of the crisis and began a military campaign to assert dominance over all of China. Ming resistance to the Manchus was robust but divided. One by one, a succession of Ming claimants to the throne was extinguished. The process of establishing the new Qing dynasty (1644–1911) took many decades as there was significant resistance to this foreign rule throughout much of the seventeenth century.

The shock of the Ming collapse, the emperor’s suicide, and conquest by foreigners resulted in a vastly altered world for Ming intellectuals. Thousands martyred themselves. Many of those who lived on hoped for a Ming restoration that painfully never materialized. Some sought refuge in Buddhist and Daoist temples as monks. Others went into hiding.

The artistic response to the traumatic early years of the Qing dynasty was varied. Many of the paintings in this section were made by a new class of people known as remnant subjects (yimin) who remained loyal to the previous Ming regime, but many of whom also felt guilt for not taking on an official role and trying to improve things from within. Some painted landscapes that offered idyllic escape; others reflected upon their experiences in the wilderness. Yet others turned inward, creating images rich with symbolic meaning and haunted by memories, resentments, and regrets.

Chen Hongshou: Self-Image in Figures of the Past | Nanjing: City of Memories |
Bada Shanren: Master of Hiding

Chen Hongshou: Self-Image in Figures of the Past

Chen Hongshou (1599–1652). Historical Figures (detail). Ink and color on silk, handscroll. Collection of Shitou Shuwu.


The most interesting painter of the 17th century to use the human figure for expressive purposes was Chen Hongshou (1599–1652). Chen was born to a family of scholar-officials, but his own aspirations for service were discouraged by repeated failures in the examinations and ultimately crushed by the fall of the Ming in 1644. He became a professional painter and mastered a colorful, decorative mode that expressed both sensuality and eccentricity. His figures display an exaggerated archaism, but Chen’s art was a refreshing novelty, primarily crafted to satisfy late Ming interest in the exotic and unusual.

After the fall of the Ming, Chen frequently painted images of well-known recluses of the past who embodied the scholar-official’s ideal of escape to a world of rustic values. While his characterizations of such figures are theatrical and whimsical, there are also overlays of satire in the manner Chen debunked the loftiness of the scholar, mocking his contemporaries as well as himself. The curious mix of reproach, irony, and sadness that characterizes Chen’s late paintings makes these among the most fascinating and complex of 17th-century self-images.

Nanjing: City of Memories

Zhang Feng (Died 1662). Immortals’ Secrets in a Stone Cave (detail), 1658. Ink and color on paper, handscroll. Private collection.


The glory of Ming moved south for a space,
And the heirs of disaster flourished like flame.
In courts of idleness patterned on Jin’s last ruler,
Little did they heed the threatening northern bows…

These lines are from Kong Shangren’s famous play, The Peach Blossom Fan, written at the end of the 17th century. They allude to the short-lived history of the Ming court at Nanjing after it fled Beijing in 1644 and re-established itself in the south.

Nanjing had been an important capital for several dynasties in south China since the Jin period in the fourth century — and was the original capital of the Ming dynasty. Nanjing was also famous as a center for art, theater, and literature, as well as for the natural beauty of the landscape.

In 1645 Nanjing’s prosperity and beauty turned to sorrow. The invading Manchu army ravaged the nearby city of Yangzhou and massacred its inhabitants. Nanjing fell shortly thereafter. Although the city was spared the destruction that befell Yangzhou, it became a city haunted by memories, a poignant symbol of both the beginning and end of the Ming dynasty.

Many of the artists in this gallery lived in Nanjing and witnessed the trauma of the city’s downfall. Their bold and emotional images of startling imagination reveal the pensive and introspective mood of the times, as well as attest to the richness of the city’s artistic heritage. 

Bada Shanren: Master of Hiding

Bada Shanren (1626–1705). Golden Fish from the Album of Golden Fish, Lotus Pods, Globefish, and Bamboo, 1689. Ink on paper, album of four leaves. Private collection.


Bada Shanren (1626–1705) is the name most commonly used to refer to one of the most famous — and paradoxically most enigmatic — of Chinese artists. Literally meaning “Eight-Great Mountain Man,” this is the last of more than 20 names he used over the course of a life deliberately cloaked in obscurity. Bada was a member of the Ming imperial family and after the fall of his dynasty he joined the Buddhist community where he distinguished himself as a brilliant monk and painter. Decades later Bada re-entered the secular world but at what appeared to be a great cost: he exhibited bizarre behavior — alternately laughing and crying in an extended fit of what was likely to have been postured madness — to avoid social interactions.

Bada’s supposed madness is one of the defining features of his art. His paintings are commonly of single subjects, such as birds, fish, and flowers. Settings are limited and sometimes do not make obvious sense. Birds and fish appear capable of human speech. He often added poems, but rather than explain the strange imagery, the verses read as nonsensical puzzles.

Utilizing homophones, puns, and obscure allusions, his poems address existential issues of loss and alienation. Bada’s skillful brush created a singular world in which engaging whimsical creatures, beautiful flowers, and landscapes of subtle texture and mood bespeak a search for personal serenity while masking deep emotional scars.

Returning Home: Stability and Normalcy

Shitao (1642–1707). Landscapes for Huang Lü (leaf 1), 1694. Ink and color on paper, album of eight leaves. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund, 60.29.1a–h.


By the 1680s, the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty was firmly consolidated. Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662–1722) embarked on a series of campaigns to bring the old Ming loyalists into the fold, in effect summoning the recluses who had gone into hiding.

While a few old survivors such as the artist Bada Shanren refused to accept these overtures, the younger generation of artists like Shitao (1642–1707), also a “remnant” member of the Ming imperial clan, began to actively seek imperial Qing patronage. Other scholar-painters made a concerted effort to continue the development of Dong Qichang’s theories in painting and the study of the work of old masters at the Qing court.

With the return of stability and the reality of the Qing dynasty firmly established, reclusion as a political statement and expression of loyalty to the old regime lost its potency and even its relevance. What remained was what had long been  a constant in China: reclusion as a lofty ideal for living. Self-proclaimed “recluses of the marketplace and court” signaled the return of normalcy as well as the end of a remarkable chapter in Chinese art and cultural history.

Postscript: Women and Reclusion in the Seventeenth Century

Xue Wu (c. 1564–c. 1637). Wild Orchids, 1601. Ink on paper, handscroll. Honolulu Museum of Art Purchase, 1952 (1667.1).


The Artful Recluse presents the response of the 17th-century male literati in poetry and painting to the political turmoil of the times. Throughout the history of pre-modern China only males could take the required examinations for obtaining an official position within the government bureaucracy. Nonetheless, women were also keenly affected by tumultuous changes of the time as they affected the personal and economic stability as well as the safety of entire households. While a number of women encouraged 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 in society.

Although the study of women’s role in recluse culture has barely been initiated, it is clear from case studies of literary women that not only did they engage in the male practice of reclusion, they also refashioned it in their own compelling manner. The use of the term recluse could be a way to describe a woman’s removal from following the typically feminine roles of wife, concubine, or courtesan, to pursue the arts of poetry and painting. Two handscrolls by woman artists are included in the exhibition. The work, Wild Orchids, shown above, is by Xue Wu, a courtesan who was famed in literati circles. Late-Ming courtesans were known for using their artistic and literary training to entertain their literati clientele and, as a result, they sometimes participated in those circles. Li Yin, the artist who painted the Flowers of the Four Seasons handscroll here, also earned the praise of male connoisseurs and followed the tastes of the literati. The scholar-painter Ge Zhenqi admired her greatly and brought her in as his concubine. After his death in 1645, Li took up the unconventional practice of painting to support herself.


Taking Up Paintbrushes, Not Arms: ‘The Artful Recluse’ at Asia Society  
   —The New York Times, 3/14/13

Paths Easy and Daunting  The Wall Street Journal3/13/13

March Art Exhibits: 10 Must-See Shows This Month  Huffington Post3/3/13

Don't Miss: March 2-8  The Wall Street Journal3/1/13

Press Release

Contact: Elaine Merguerian 212.327.9271, 

Asia Society presents a major exhibition of Chinese paintings that reveal the private world of the scholar-painters who lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history — the end of the Ming dynasty (c. 1600–1644) and the early years of foreign conquest by the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty (1644–c.1700). Many of the paintings are exhibited for the first time in the United States and drawn from seven private collections and six public institutions in the U.S. and Taiwan, including the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Artful Recluse showcases some of China’s most celebrated artists who, following a time-honored tradition in Chinese culture, withdrew from the turbulent and public life of politics to seek solace in nature, art, and private companionship. Using landscape and the natural world as their symbolic subject matter these artists created brilliant and diverse commentary through art. Many of the paintings include poems and inscriptions that enhance the images with masterful calligraphy. 

The exhibition is organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, where it premiered in fall 2012. Asia Society Museum is the only other venue for the exhibition. Susan Tai, Elizabeth Atkins Curator of Asian Art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and Peter Sturman, professor of History of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, organized the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. At Asia Society, Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art, is the in-house curator for the exhibition.

Click here to download the complete press release.

The Artful Recluse 
is part of China Close Up, Asia Society’s yearlong programmatic focus on China.


This exhibition is organized by the Santa Barabar Museum of Art.

The exhibition is made possible by the generous support of The Partridge Foundation, a John and Polly Guth Charitable Fund.

Major support for this exhibition is also provided by Karen Wang, in honor of her father Wong Nan-Ping, Lisina M. Hoch, and the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund.

Asia Society acknowledges other generous underwriters including Kyle W. Blackmon, Henrietta and Richard Fore, Will and Helen Little, Miranda Wong Tang, Lulu and Anthony Wang, Mr. and Mrs. Shao F. and Cheryl Wang, and Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang.

Additional support is provided by Winnie and Michael Feng, Marie-Hélène Weill, and Barbara and Robert Youngman.

This exhibition has been organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, with major funding provided by  China Guardian Auctions Co., Ltd. , SBMA Women’s Board, Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation in memory of F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr., and Cecille and Michael Pulitzer Foundation.  

Support for Asia Society Museum is provided by the Partridge Foundation, a John and Polly Guth Charitable Fund; Asia Society Contemporary Art Council; Asia Society Friends of Asian Arts; Arthur Ross Foundation; Sheryl and Charles R. Kaye Endowment for Contemporary Art Exhibitions; Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund; National Endowment for the Humanities; Hazen Polsky Foundation; New York State Council on the Arts; and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.


Asia Society Museum Staff


Melissa Chiu, Museum Director and Senior Vice President, Global Arts and Cultural Programs
Marion Kocot, Director, Museum Operations
Nancy Blume, Head of Museum Education Programs
Clare McGowan, Collections Manager and Registrar

Laili Paksima, Manager, Global Events and Special Initiatives
Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art
Jacob M. Reynolds, Registrar
Donna Saunders, Executive Assistant

Kevin Stapp, Installation Manager

Kate Williamson, Museum Publications Coordinator

Michelle Yun, Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

Plan Your Visit