The pleasures of virtue and the virtues of pleasure: The classicizing garden in eleventh- and twelfth-century China and Byzantium

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Abstract

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Byzantium and China, the garden as a site of pleasure was an important literary theme among literati. Although pleasure had long been associated with gardens prior to this period, its simultaneous resurgence in both cultures was specifically linked to new ways of engaging with the classical tradition. This paper explores the nature and significance of the discourse of pleasure in the imagination of gardens in these two culturally distinct, but historically resonant, imperial societies. Noting important parallels and divergences in the literature surrounding pleasurable gardens in the two traditions, it argues that the garden as a site of pleasure was more than a document of the carefree pleasures of communing with nature. Instead, it was a declaration among literati – constrained by their place in a vast imperial bureaucratic system – of their agency, their integrity and, above all, their virtue. Far from being just a psychological or affective state, the pleasures they documented were a testimony of their freedom and moral authority in the face of a vast political order upon which they depended, but that also required their participation and validation as the bearers of the authoritative classical tradition that sustained the very imperial project. As a site charged with references and allusions to the ancient past and its authoritative voices, the garden provided an optimal arena in which those literati retreating from the front lines of official duty could fashion the conditions of their own pleasure, and thereby display their virtue, assert their autonomy and bring to fulfillment their human potentiality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-265
Number of pages37
JournalMedieval Worlds
Volume2021
Issue number13
Early online date30 Jun 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021

Keywords

  • gardens
  • pleasure
  • Antiquity
  • classicizing learning
  • literati
  • Song Dynasty
  • Byzantium
  • virtue
  • self-cultivation

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