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The contribution of early medieval China (AD 220-589) to the travel culture of landscape appreciation

The contribution of early medieval China (AD 220-589) to the travel culture of landscape appreciation

By Libo Yan

PhD Dissertation, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 2010

Abstract: Tourism has a long history that in the Western culture dates back to ancient Rome and Greece. In imperial China, tourism has a tradition independent of Europe, and is defined in the present study as “the travel culture of landscape appreciation”. At the heart of the travel culture was mainly landscape encountered, rather than society encountered as was in the European tradition. The aim of the study is to explore the factors contributing to the tradition formed in early medieval China (AD 220-589).

The subject was the aristocratic literati, who lived an affluent life based on the manorial economy as well as the political privileges guaranteed by the Nine Rank System. The decline of Confucianism and the rise of Taoism justified their concern with the individual life, and thus differentiated them from the ancient Confucian gentlemen who tended to fully devote themselves to politics and society. The change in social values paved the way for individual pursuits, including the appreciation of landscape. The method for the present study was historical studies combined with content analysis. The main sources were literary works and discourses left by early medieval literati, with the aid of their biographies in the official histories. Induction was employed for exploration of the evolution of the travel culture of landscape appreciation. Case studies were used when a general situation remains unknown for the lack of sources.

The story of the evolution of the travel culture was told in a manner that integrated historical interpretation into historical narrative. The major findings are summarized below. By regarding mountains as immortals’ dwellings and ideal sites for self-cultivation, the Taoist perspective stimulated interest in visiting mountains. Some literati or Taoist laymen entered famous, scenic mountains for herb gathering, thus finding the beauty of nature. Among the literati class, the Taoist perspective aroused a desire for wandering in famous mountains, but the desire was difficult to be put into practice because of temporal and spatial constraints. The early medieval literati, therefore, used the suburbs as a substitute, making frequent excursion to the outskirts of cities for recreation as well as landscape appreciation. In the process of appreciating suburban scenery, the literati class cultivated a strong consciousness of landscape, which then made their tours different from ancient travelers who traversed scenic areas but seldom praised them. The convergence of a large group of influential, outstanding literati and artists in Kuaiji Commandery significantly contributed to the formation of a culture of landscape appreciation, and meanwhile made traveling from the commandery to the capital an important part in their social life. Finally, the culture of landscape appreciation reached its maturity in the long journeys associated with taking offices in different places in the South. From then on, official travels had been extensively linked to landscape appreciation.

The major conclusions are as follows. The decline of Confucianism was a prerequisite for the emergence of landscape appreciation. A rectification of the imbalance in literati’s social life occurred when social conditions changed rapidly, which then led to the transformation of value-orientation, from devotion to hedonism. Accompanying the transformation was the quest for meaning of life, which finally resulted in the justification of landscape appreciation. The permission from religion and philosophy paved the way for landscape appreciation. Confucianism took a moral perspective on mountains and rivers, which made the literati class close to nature in theory. By contrast, Taoism brought about practices of proximity to the nature world. Taoism drove the early Taoists and literati to mountains for nonmaterial reasons. Wandering in scenic, famous mountains for herb gathering contributed to literati’s awareness of the beauty of nature. The locale of the suburbs was significant for the evolution of landscape appreciation. With the influence of Taoist thoughts and practices, literati in the third and fourth century tended to have a desire for wandering in remote, famous mountains. However, the temporal and spatial constraints made them resort to the suburbs which were regarded as a substitute for remote scenic mountains. In spite of the superficial aesthetic experience they attained in the suburbs, the inclination for excursions to the suburbs did bring scenery close to the literati class, and enhance the consciousness of landscape. In the mid fourth century, a collective conscious of landscape was forged among the literati class. The travel involved in political careers finally brought the culture of landscape appreciation to its maturity. The two types of travels hunting for positions and taking offices, offered important opportunities for appreciating scenery which would be otherwise inaccessible. With these opportunities, the traveling literati sought for secluded and unusual sights, and explored the features and details of landscape, which brought about the aesthetic appreciation in the full sense. In the beginning of the fifth century, landscape appreciation became a significant part of literati’s social life, and the link between travel and landscape appreciation was well established. To a large extent, the above four factors account for the emergence and flourish of the travel culture of landscape appreciation in early medieval China.

Click here to read this thesis from Hong Kong Polytechnic University

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