It’s Asia Week here in New York City, an annual festival of arts and culture both ancient and contemporary. A featured exhibition is the Asia Society’s exquisite display of Chinese brush paintings from 17th century China, a time of change, crisis, and conflict as the Ming dynasty gave way to the Qing.
You might expect paintings like these to chronicle the rebellion that was born of drought starvation, high taxes, and government corruption on the one hand, or to glorify the falling Ming emperor on the other. But they do neither. Instead, 17th century intellectuals and artists chose to reject both politics and chaos to choose lives of contemplation and solitude.
Even now, so many centuries and half-a-world away, these simple and elegant paintings transport the modern viewer as well. A solitary figure on mountainside seated under a tree, clothed in simple robes, looks out with a sure a long gaze, and we do, too. A vertical landscape draws us on a serpentine path to a lofty mountaintop. A single scholar leans on his staff, trekking in solitude, and we feel his calm steadiness.
To resign one’s imperial post and all of its perks to live with only what you carry on your back was not mere escapism but an intentional decision to live more fully into the principles from which bureaucratic life had strayed so far. It was an active choice to strip away the static and choose a path that asked less obedience and more contemplation, less doing and more being.
These elegant images re-assert solitude as an active and intentional choice, perhaps one we most need when the world is most out of control.
Much has been written about how hard and yet how important it is to find solitude and contemplation amid the modern lives we lead. We do not need to wait for the fall of the emperor and go wandering into the mountains, alone, like these Ming scholars. But we can take equally intentional, if simpler, journeys into solitude and contemplation—perhaps even as simple as gazing on a finely brushed scene from long ago where a kindred spirit calls to us: “Come, take a walk and sit quietly. Just for a bit.”