Patterns of Disengagement

Submitted by Tsai Julius Nanting on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:40
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PATTERNS OF DISENGAGEMENT: THE PRACTICE AND PORTRAYAL OF RECLUSION IN EARLY MEDIEVAL CHINA. By Alan J. Berkowitz. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. xii+296. Cloth, $60, ISBN 0-8047-3603-0. 

Patterns of Disengagement is a fascinating, meticulously-crafted account of the development of the ideal of reclusion into China's early medieval period. Berkowitz convincingly demonstrates that reclusion, far from being a unitary phenomenon, was instead a complex and contextualized balancing of practices, choices, representations, and social relationships. Diachronically, the author charts a course from emergent paradigms of reclusion in early China, to the portrayal of exemplary individuals in the Han, to the Six Dynasties portrayal of individuals occupying a “consciously differentiated yet fully integrated sector of society as a whole” (14). While earlier works such as Aat Vervoorn’s Men of the Cliffs and Caves (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1990) focused on the formation of the theme of withdrawal from early China up through the end of the Han, Berkowitz argues that it is not until the Six Dynasties that reclusion develops into a fully formed cultural complex. Synchronically, the book reflects on the dynamics surrounding the fundamental choice of whether to hold office or refuse office. Either choice had manifold implications, and could be understood as a potent actualization of moral ideals. Berkowitz articulates a critical distinction between “nominal” and “substantive" reclusion, a distinction no less challenging for modern scholars as for the ancients to determine. The former ranged from genteel expressions of the abstract notion of reclusion to career-minded posturing, while the latter was actualized by individuals who steadfastly refused office, maintained a life of retreat, and were hailed as exemplars of moral mettle. 

Chapter One traces the development in pre-Han sources of archetypical figures such as the Moral Hero, the Paragon of Extraordinary Conduct, and the Perfect Man, among an array of categories, some translated while others heuristic, that Berkowitz deploys throughout. 

Chapter Two shows an emerging concern in the Han with portraying exemplars of reclusion as historically situated individuals. A highlight here is the tracing, through textual and epigraphic sources, of representations of the Four Hoaryheads (Sihao), renowned for their timely imperial remonstrance. In footnotes throughout the book, the reader is also occasionally treated to accounts of the author’s own visits to temples, shrines, and sites associated with recluses of yore.            

Chapter Three examines the dynamics and dilemmas of reclusion in the later Han, when an increase in charlatans and posers led to criteria for differentiating authentic from inauthentic reclusion, strategic retirement from steadfast, principled withdrawal. Also of note in this chapter is a section on women’s roles and experiences. Chapter Four, discussing the implications of the collapse of the Han dynasty, identifies literary developments such as the rise of biographical compilations of recluses, “separate accounts” (biezhuan), and local genealogies, all evincing a growing interest in reclusion as integrated into the “accepted repertoire of discretionary conduct of the scholar-official class” (129). 

Chapters Five and Six explore early medieval representations of reclusion. The former focuses on Later Han and Jin sources such as Ji Kang’s Shenxian gaoshi zhuan zan and Huangfu Mi’s Gaoshi zhuan, biographies of “High-minded Gentlemen” that foreground such sources as Fan Ye’s "Traditions of Disengaged Persons" ("Yimin zhuan") in the Hou Hanshu. Berkowitz demonstrates the porousness of categories and criteria concerning reclusion. The latter chapter draws primarily from dynastic histories through the seventh century, sources that exhibit a diversity of stances in which the merits of reclusion versus office-holding are weighed; underlying causes for reclusion are attributed to the nature of the times, karma, or a person’s innate disposition. A telling indication of the cultural power of withdrawal since Han times is seen in imperial appropriations of reclusion, whether in calling reclusive worthies to court or in sponsoring them as they steadfastly refusal to serve. 

Chapter Seven focuses on the reverberant cultural influences of the Daoist “polymath” Tao Hongjing (456-536) and the poet-recluse Tao Qian (365-427). The former’s relationship with Emperor Wu of the Liang is a reminder that to live in reclusion was by no means to quit engagement in social and political networks. The latter, through literary accounts of retreat, created an indelible persona and ethos of reclusion in the Chinese imagination. Berkowitz’s conclusion recapitulates representative patterns of Six Dynasties reclusion and common traits such as the shunning of a life of service to the state; refusal to compromise on moral principles; and engagement in worthy conduct. Here, Berkowitz tends to let the sources speak for themselves in lengthier translated passages. The book’s approach at least implicitly suggests that by drawing out family resemblances rather than seek definitive essences one might better be able to grasp “reclusion” – in its many dimensions and historically contextualized representations – through encounters with narratives of the actual individuals who comprised its practice and portrayal. 

Patterns of Disengagement succeeds in advancing understanding of reclusion in a number of ways. Berkowitz situates practices of reclusion along a negotiated continuum of engagement and disengagement; illuminates the motivations and strategies of reclusion’s practitioners within the particular social nexus that rendered such practice intelligible and meaningful; and provides a history of ongoing critical discourse in China concerning the nature of substantive reclusion through the early medieval period. The book does not so much focus on "religious reclusion," for example what it terms "Daoist-imbued" or "Buddhist-imbued" withdrawal (12-13, 208-209), as it does on shared representations of reclusion among the lettered elite more broadly. However, scholars working in the history of early medieval Daoism, where biographical and hagiographical genres present significant challenges as well as opportunities, will likely resonate with and benefit from Berkowitz’s careful concern with issues of textual genre, socio-historical context, and the dynamic space between rhetorical portrayal and actual practice, and be able to draw on this rich treatment to chart out further insights and connections. More broadly, this book should be of interest to all readers seeking a historical understanding of a powerful, persistent and distinctive motif in Chinese cultural life. Elegantly and eruditely, the author has demonstrated that those who participated in the construction of reclusion created lasting patterns of moral engagement through disengagement, cultural presence through absence. 

Julius N. Tsai

Texas Christian University


July 6, 2005