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China Humanities Seminar featuring Lu Kuo – The Temporary Recluse: The Discourse of Not Working in Early Medieval Chinese Poetry
December 5 @ 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Speaker: Lu Kou, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University
For imperial officials, “work” – fulfilling duties in the office, traveling for business, or managing lawsuits, taxation, or infrastructure – was a common subject matter for poetic treatment. Yet meanwhile, they also wrote prolifically about “not working,” which encompassed both permanent withdrawal from the officialdom and temporary release of duties. In their poetry on “not working,” poet-officials often portrayed themselves as recluses, men who claimed to evade social interactions and civil services in order to retain a sense of independence and personal integrity. Ironically, while they tapped the discourse of reclusion to describe sabbaticals, vacations, or demotions – what I call “temporary recluse,” this discourse also heightened the poet-officials’ awareness of themselves being working persons. It opened up a poetic space where they can negotiate with bureaucratic systems, articulate their worth vis-à-vis the work, investigate the meaning of leisure, and fashion communities of like-minded working colleagues.
While the culture of reclusion in early medieval China is well studied, this talk focuses on the reclusive discourse as a discourse of not working that emerged, developed, and dispersed within a culture of work. By examining two cases, one on Liu Xiaochuo’s (481–539) leave of absence (xiumu 休沐), and the other on Xie Tiao’s (464–499) poetics of local governance, this talk studies how poet-officials manipulated the reclusive discourse as a rhetorical strategy to navigate imperial bureaucracy and reinscribe their worth and value. I show that the reclusive imaginary was embedded in a culture of service and that the reclusive discourse bridged “work” and “not work,” rendering their boundaries porous and malleable.
Lu Kou is Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. As a medievalist and a scholar of premodern Chinese literature, Lu Kou’s research interests include medieval Chinese literature and culture, poetry and poetics, historiography, and comparative studies of China’s Middle Period and medieval Europe. He is currently at work on two book projects: War of Words: Courtly Exchange, Rhetoric, and Political Cultures in Early Medieval China, which examines the “discursive battles” fought among rival states in China’s early medieval period and investigates how rhetoric constructed and contested political legitimacy in this age of multipolarity; and (tentatively titled) Locked Seal, Heart of Poetry: Bureaucracy and the Representation of Work in Medieval Chinese Poetry, 400-900 CE, which studies the dialectic between poetry and bureaucratic systems, between lyricism and quotidian renderings of “work” in medieval poetry. Before joining the faculty at Columbia, he was Assistant Professor of Chinese at Bard College (2019-2022) and Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College (2018-2019).