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Fashioning the Reclusive Persona: Zeng Jing's Informal Portraits of the Jiangnan Literati


Zeng Jing (1564–1647) was a professional portraitist in late Ming China who specialized in informal portraits of contemporary literati in the Jiangnan region. Zeng’s portrait oeuvre embodies the Jiangnan literati’s eremitic aspirations, illuminating the ways in which the literati visually constructed their reclusive personae. Zeng depicted members of Jiangnan cultural elite as commoners or as mountain men, integrating the literati heritage of eremitism with a range of pictorial traditions of representing reclusive figures. The casual dress, relaxed postures, and informal settings in Zeng’s portraits functioned as visual signifiers of the political disengagement and reclusive lifestyle that his sitters pursued. Zeng’s focus on individualized physiognomy indicates the politically frustrated literati’s strong sense of self-awareness. Zeng designed all his portraits to convey the Jiangnan literati’s values of political insubordination, cultural self-contentment, and collective identity of reclusion.

Zeng Jing’s portraits give visible form to the complex mindset of the reclusive literati and to the values and aspirations that characterized late Ming eremitism. Zeng’s appropriation and reinterpretation of the conventional scholar-in-landscape composition concretizes the enduring notion of reclusion as communing with nature. Zeng’s pictorial allusions to venerable recluses from earlier ages of Chinese history and his subtle use of Buddhist and Daoist iconography show how archaism and syncretism permeated the literati’s ethos of reclusion. Zeng’s portraits, coupled with the portrait encomia written by the sitters and their companions, emerge as both pictorial and literary testimonies of the Jiangnan literati’s self-fashioning. Through the collective acts of appreciating and inscribing portraits, the Jiangnan literati used Zeng’s portraits as a means to create camaraderie within reclusion. During Zeng’s most prolific years, many members of Chen Jiru and Dong Qichang’s coterie in Huating shared in the ideal of reclusion by sitting for portraits by Zeng, while the literary giant Chen collaborated with Zeng by providing encomia to Zeng’s portraits. As focal points for individual expression, social posturing, and aesthetic experience, Zeng’s portraits forged the Jiangnan literati’s eremitic cultural identity in reaction to the sociopolitical unrest of the late Ming.

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