Representing the Literatus: Portraiture and identity in Yuan Figure Painting

Leung, Ge Yau 梁芷柔
Supervisor: Dr. R.L. Hammers

This thesis examines the evolution of literati portraiture by studying a few extant portraits of literati with different personal backgrounds made at different times during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). I contend that the change in the identity of shi 士 in the Song dynasty (960-1279) and in the Yuan dynasty prompted the development of new modes of representation in literati portraiture. The Northern Song (960-1127) literati who did not have an aristocratic background and joined the rank of shi explored new ways to represent themselves other than in established formats of portraiture designed for the court and aristocrats. In the Yuan dynasty, the literati tried to emphasize multiple and different aspects of their identity and personality by reinventing or amplifying traditional genres of paintings and modifying established modes of representations for portraiture. In particular, a group of wealthy men without an aristocratic or bureaucratic background rose as a result of the blooming economy of Suzhou and its neighbouring areas strove for recognition and affirmation of their status in the literati circles and as shi. They created new modes of representation to define the changing and expanding identity of shi which based on the cultural accomplishment the gentleman and his status within the established community of educated scholars, the local and the Jiangnan literati circles. Yuan literati portraits became increasingly complicated in terms of their pictorial composition, style, practices and larger production as a whole in the Yuan dynasty to cater for the changing and expanding identity of shi. In early Yuan, Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254-1322) added a landscape to his self-portrait to explain his complex identity as a recluse at court. In mid-Yuan, four renowned scholars who had served at the capital were represented in the Portraits of four scholars by incorporating iconography of Confucian worthies and more specifically of the Song Daoxue 道學 (Learning of the Way) scholars to emphasize their identity as successors of Daotung 道統 (Transmission of the Way). From mid to late Yuan, the rising wealthy literati residing in Suzhou and its nearby areas in the east of Lake Tai adopted three new formats in portraiture to define their new identity. The first mode was to represent the subject in a seated position with scholarly accoutrements accompanied with writings in the form of inscriptions or colophons by the subject and/or friends. The second format depicted the wealthy literati in their thatched halls. Some of these representations of thatched halls could also be read as pictorial representations of the sobriquet of the subject such as The Thatched Hall of Zhuxi made for Yang Qian 楊謙 (b. 1283). The third format, the all-embracing “painting package,” possibly invented by Yang Qian was exemplified in the Small portrait of the reclusive gentleman Yang Zhuxi. I argue that Yang Qian not only sought to gain recognition in the literati circle as a cultivated recluse through these two portrait commissions. He also endeavoured to establish himself as a leader in art who set the new standard of representation of the literatus self so as to compete for cultural authority with other wealthy elites. The modes of representations Yang Qian developed were used and further developed by the literati in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).