Refuge and Empty Pavilions: Encountering Ni Zan (1306-1374)

Leung, Pui Yi 梁佩儀
Supervisor: Dr. R.L. Hammers (primary), Dr. C.D. Muir

This thesis addresses the evolution of ting 亭 (pavilion) into a multivalent architectural motif in Chinese painting up to the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368). Ni Zan 倪瓚 (1306-1374), one of the four great painting masters of the Yuan, explored the representation of ting and modified this architectural structure into his signatory motif. His landscape paintings are famous for the feature of the empty ting, but the implications of this iconography are often overlooked. Traditionally the scholarship on Ni Zan’s paintings relies on embellished biographical myths of the artist. By reexamining Ni Zan’s historical circumstances, I contend that Ni Zan did not live a leisurely life after he lost his home, the time during which he created the empty ting motif. A survey on Ni Zan’s oeuvre attests that Ni Zan painted figures in the ting in early paintings – a controversial point not recognized in earlier scholarship.By scrutinizing Ni Zan’s writing on tings, this study shows that Ni Zan altered his conception on this building; it became associated with desolated landscape while at the same time suggested a place of refuge. This shift was parallel to the imagery in Ni Zan paintings in which he transformed the ting into empty structure in his later years. To comment on the literati frustration he experienced with the dynastic change, Ni Zan reinterpreted the empty ting as a complex iconographical motif in painting. Contemporaneous viewers saw nuanced meanings in the empty ting, regarding them as nostalgic and/or unhappy meditations on the transitory nature of living. I contend that the empty ting represented a personalized architectural structure for Ni Zan. It was a place of refuge in which personal feelings and memories were lodged so that viewers, his circle of friends, could gather again metaphorically in the pictorial structure in order to grieve about the transitory nature of happiness, to remember personal loss and to lament their bad fate of living during dynastic change. The depiction of the ting for personal expression relates to the larger history of the use of architectural motifs to make meaning in painting. By exploring the history of the inclusion of architecture as subject matter for painting, this study illustrates how architecture, in addition to its physical functions, was an established venue to convey cultural contents. The ting, in particular, was favored by the literati and became a theme in their literary pursuits. In the Yuan dynasty, the ting also had become a distinct subject in painting. It was in this context that Ni Zan created his painting with the ting. The ting’s association with literati culture motivated Ni Zan to explore its representation, and was pivotal in the establishment of his literati status. Through detailed analysis of the representation of architectural motifs in painting, this thesis evaluates Ni Zan in art history and reclaims the meanings of his empty ting motif in his historical context.