Brown, Kendall H. The Politics of Reclusion: Painting and Power in Momoyama Japan.
Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1997.

Japan incorporated many aspects of Chinese culture throughout its formative centuries, from linguistic and literary, philosophical and religious, to painting and tea. Brown's work focuses on a particular aspect of painting during the Kamakura-Momoyama period in Japan from 18185-1600, namely on the eremitic theme in painted screens and hangings.

There is considerable detail and methodology here for the art historian, but the book is hardly limited to this narrow realm. Brown covers literature, philosophy, and tea ceremony as well, and ably presents the contexts of social and political factors. The emphasis is on the development of perceptions about two sets of famous Chinese hermits and recluses: the so-called "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove" and the "Four Graybeards of Mt. Shang."

Hermit Paintings

Author Brown notes that while eremitism is common to all societies, only Japanese artists developed the genre of "hermit paintings," the depiction of hermit exemplars representing a philosophy or religion. The paintings share a common set of characteristics.

  1. The hermits depicted are Chinese.
  2. The physical context is pleasant, without a hint of hardship or deprivation.
  3. Eremitic life is depicted as a product of high culture.
  4. The hermit's hut is transformed into a standard of both style and symbol.
  5. The hermit is not depicted alone but entertains a visitor or is attended by servants.

The depiction of Chinese hermits in Japanese paintings, especially of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and the Four Graybeards of Mt. Shang, evolved into a refined complex of political and social commentary. This process evolved in part by the widespread manufacture of such paintings of screens, essentially large room dividers purchased or commissioned by individual patrons. Stylized use of color and gold made them usable to various classes interpreting the content of the paintings in different or contradictory ways. Aristocratic, merchant, military and priestly classes perceived hermit paintings to their own purposes. Brown observes that his was due to the values of eremitism being "broad and flexible enough to accommodate a range of potential interpretations." From political protest to subversion of the normative social order, from philosophical integrity to aesthetic escapism, eremitism projected different things to different classes of Japanese society, and the hermit paintings crystallized this diversity of view.

Regardless of the original Chinese associations of each theme, most Japanese pictorializations of the Seven Sages and the Four Graybeards create an idealized world where groups of lofty scholars live in communion with nature and where they engage in refined activities. Thus, the figures, whatever their motivation in traditional accounts, in Momoyama and early Edo period paintings appear to have rejected society to find personal and creative liberation through a devotion to nature, artistic pursuits, and intimate human relations. This type of reclusion -- neither religious in origin nor overtly political in practice -- has been termed "aesthetic reclusion" (suki no tonsei).

The hermit paintings represent aesthetic reclusion and are "politically ambivalent." Brown notes that they share five characteristics:

  1. communitas
  2. scholarly pastimes
  3. appreciation of nature
  4. ritual poverty manifest as elegant rusticity
  5. reference to the Chinese past

Communitas represents the gathering of like-minded individuals on an equal footing. The sages and graybeards are depicted on paintings in company with other scholars and gentlemen by Confucian standards, philosophers and poets by higher standards. Their pastimes reflect this standard of behavior, too, for they engage in playing go or the lute (chin), study or practice painting and calligraphy, scrutinize old scrolls and collect antique tea ware.

Yet communitas and scholarly pastimes were not the norms of true Chinese or Japanese hermits. The difference is that aesthetic reclusion (versus religious or philosophical reclusion) is the provenance of classes of men with no intention of pursuing the real thing. They purchase and display hermit paintings in order to posture for political power or to mask political dissent, as will be seen, but they are not hermits.

In the paintings there is a standard context to the human figures in nature. Figures "gaze at dramatic waterfalls and towering mountains." The figures lounge beside stately pines and bamboos. Their simple huts are well-crafted, projecting "elegant rusticity." The relationship to nature

provides an alternative order to the human realm from which these men have fled. The fusion of man with nature represents a liberation from the impermanence of human society as the hermit becomes part of the comforting cycle of nature.

Of course, these are "edenic settings," nothing less than "a Japanese dreamscape of China," intentionally so. In Momoyama society -- as in every society -- power was acquired through military might, wealth, or social rank. Hermit paintings were commodities reflecting status. A samurai projected disdain for civilian rule by displaying hermit paintings that supported Confucian reclusion, specifically aesthetic reclusion, wherein the hermit-scholar returned to service when he realized that the ruler was good. This was subtle and not controversial. Political discontent could be denied on the part of the owner, especially since the painting displayed refined activities neither anti-social nor political in nature

A priest, on the other hand, might display the same paintings while projecting a different motive, namely discontent about military classes and values versus the benign pursuits of wiser men. Among other economic and social classes, the hermit paintings projected still other nuanced statements about power. As Brown notes, the hermit paintings were "ambivalent formats capable of carrying significant meaning." This exploration of meaning is the purpose of the book.

Chapter summaries

Here are the succeeding chapters of Brown's study, with a summary of each.  As can be seen, the work is about far more than screen paintings or art history, and this is a real strength in documenting the history of eremitism in Japan.

  1. A Tradition of Transformation: The Seven Sages and the Four Graybeards in Japanese Literature.
  2. Symbolic Virtue and Political Legitimation: Tea and Politics in the Momoyama Period.
  3. The Visual Structure of Aesthetic Reclusion: The Seven Sages and the Four Graybeards in Momoyama Painting.
  4. Self-Cultivation and Sagehood: Aesthetic Reclusion as Lived and Leveraged in the Early Seventeenth Century.
  5. Epilogue: The Politics of Aesthetic Reclusion; History, Culture, and Imagination.


The Four Graybeards are scholar-officials of the third-century BCE: Dongyuangong, Qili Ji, Jiaoli xiansheng, and Xia Huanggong. They reflect the Confucian ideal of reclusion in the mountains during an era of despotism, accordingly depicted by Japanese painters in pursuit of aesthetic pleasures. Such paintings were sold to officials leaving or retiring from public service. But the Four Graybeards returned to service in better times, and artists' depictions of their return are highlighted in gold and marketed to younger men entering service without a touch of idealism. The place of the Four Graybeards in Japanese painting seems straight-forward.

Not so the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, whose depictions suggest a range of motives, ideologies, and purposes. The Sages were third-century CE Chinese figures: Ruan Ji, Ji Kang, Shan Tao, Xiang Xiu, Liu Ling, Wang Rong, and Ruan Xian. But their stories are largely apocryphal. The Seven Sages are neo-Taoists, not Confucians, noted for their rejection of politics and social convention and conformity. By casting aesthetic reclusion as a set of values rather than a specific status, the Seven Sages open their ideals to urbanites and officials, to the weak as well as the powerful, attracted by the liberated aestheticism of music, wine, and good friends.

While aesthetic reclusion captured the attention of dominant forms of poetry in medieval Japan, philosophical or political protest reclusion was also in ascendance, especially when Buddhism became influential in Japan. This influence restored the elements of graceful aging, sagacity, and harmony with nature overshadowed by the sensuality of aesthetic reclusion. However, Brown does not explore this more genuine expression of classical eremitism.

By the late twelfth century, a literature of reclusion appeared in Japan, highlighted by Kamo no Chomei, which focused on the integrity of the true hermit against the false uses of eremitism in the past. This criticism extended to society and politics and was tolerated as a benign outlet for philosophical eremitism. For example, Yasutane advocated a "middle reclusion." Chomei does not prescribe reclusion to everyone. Kenko suggests reclusion as a kind of enlightenment. All suggest a set of values.

The values were extended by the poetry of the Gozan or Zen Buddhist priests, where the Four Graybeards and Seven Sages acquire a purity and moral integrity lacking in aesthetic reclusion. The refinement of eremitism continued in renga poetry of succeeding centuries, where the literary ideal

was no longer a solitary or obscure figure but how an important social actor whose dwelling had become a status symbol and whose experience was not the subject of literature.


This chapter explores the institutionalization of aesthetic reclusion in fourteenth century Japan during the Kitayama era. And intriguing social role emerged. Counselors to samurai adopted the self-description of tonseisha or hermit as a way of advising superiors without threat of reprisal. The advisor's pose of simplicity, sagacity, and political indifference safeguarded his position. The tonseisha could extend his role to the teaching of aesthetic refinements such as art and tea ceremony. "In short, patronage of the tonseisha proved politically efficacious in that the recluse-advisor stood for the rejection of power -- the key plank in Confucian theory of the legitimation of power."

Throughout the Momoyama era, where political power was acquired through military power, the hegemons and warriors used to attaining power were faced with the need to retain it by demonstrating their worthiness or legitimacy. They adopted the Confucian concept of kogi, injecting a strong ethical component to their rule, which required a display of benevolence, humanity, propriety on the part of the ruler, a stewardship of the people. This involved education of warriors in aesthetic skills, most prominent being the ability to patronize tea ceremonies.

Tea ceremony has a direct origin in the symbols of eremitism. The tea house is a recreation of the hermit hut, the path to the teahouse symbolic of the isolated mountainous forest path, the utensils reminiscent of the simple implements of the hermit. The gardens, arbors, moon-viewing platforms, artificial lakes and ponds, and the carefully contrived teahouses maintained on the castle grounds of powerful lords were all intended to display aesthetic refinement versus the reputation of mindless violence. The teahouse offered "a civilized escape from a brutalized age."


tea transformed the values of aesthetic reclusion into ritual practice, and this codified and commodified ersatz eremitism could be displayed -- literally and figuratively -- as a sign of ultimate culture accomplishment that, in turn, helped legitimize those who held or sought power. By engaging in a ritual that inverts the normative social experience, the participants in tea gatherings could claim to possess that brand of Confucian political theory that posited the rejection of power as one key aspect of the right to rule.

Tea ceremony inverts social order by ritual equalizing of the status of the participants. Warriors must leaved their swords and regalia outside the teahouse. Each participant must ritually wash their hands and rinse their mouth at a basin. The teahouse may be adorned with a hermit painting that conveys different meaning to different participants. Conversation is low in tone and minimal. Many topics are taboo. Each participant receives the same type of cup and is served from the same rustic teapot. For a little while, they are all propertyless hermits, renouncers of ambition, competition, and self-interest.

Brown places tea and hermit paintings in the same context:

When the once spontaneous or existential act of reclusion becomes the stuff of ritual and pictorial symbol, it no longer acts as a direct threat to social structure, but can be manipulated as a safeguard of the normative order. As the ritualization of aesthetic reclusion, tea -- aided and abetted by hermit-theme paintings -- serves the seemingly paradoxical function of subverting and preserving the political status quo. At the ritual or metaphoric level, eremitism is the escape from subordination, but the end result of such rituals and visual metaphors is the acceptance of that subordination.


In this chapter, the characteristics of aesthetic reclusion formalized by tea ceremony are applied to paintings depicting the Seven Sages and Four Graybeards. These characteristics are:

  1. communitas, referring to conviviality of the like-minded
  2. liminality, referring to subtlety, understatement, and self-effacement
  3. appreciation of nature
  4. symbolic poverty
  5. recreation of the past

Unlike most art criticism, where the painting provides the social or political statement from its inherent characteristics, the Japanese hermit paintings, as already mentioned, were taken to mean different things to different patrons. Originally, paintings of the Seven Sages and Four Graybeards were taken by emperors and aristocrats as a legitimization of their power. Confucian service, courtly elegance, and not complete reclusion were the assigned values.

The depiction of multiple hermits suggested the overriding vale of communitas, not solitude. Common interests, aesthetic refinement,  and especially separation from worldly people, appealed to the warrior and the aristocrat.

While scholarly pursuits might seem of less interest to these patrons, the pursuits are transmuted into pastimes like collecting and antiquarianism. The hermit's appreciation of nature becomes the tame garden or grove, attractive and unusual rocks, artificial waterfalls. The paintings reinforce not only nature as antithesis to urbanism but as antithesis to crass defilement. The addition of pine, bamboo, and plum in a painting's landscape furthers the liminality of auspiciousness and integrity.

The hermitages and pavilions in the paintings are stylized wooden edifices, ostensibly simple. But their fine workmanship is too artificial; they represent "aristocratic fantasy of aesthetic reclusion" and not the reality of the true hermit hut.

An element of fantasy and nostalgia is intrinsic in the paintings. The paintings "consciously revise Chinese history by rearranging historical figure subjects." Brown describes three methods of dealing with historical figures used in the hermit paintings:

  1. paralleling - the depicting of a figure subject that evokes that of another subject;
  2. joining - mixing historically unrelated but thematically similar subjects;
  3. transforming - mixing historically and thematically unrelated subjects.

All of these techniques were used in depictions of the Seven Sages and Four Graybeards, further mixing the depictions by sites (temples, castles, residences, teahouses), rooms (reception, gallery, temple precinct), canvas (screen, panel, dioramic set, wall), and style (ink outline, polychrome, gold).


This final section (short of the epilogue) examines the lives of three men of early seventeenth-century Japan to demonstrate the effects of aesthetic reclusion, hermit painting, and ritual practice: Kinoshita Choshoshi, Shokado Shojo, and Ishikawa Joran.

Choshoshi survived ignominy in war to become a poet and urban recluse. Shojo was originally a Shingon priest who became a painter, calligrapher, and tea adept before spending the latter half of his life living in a hermit's hut, but combined with an active social life. Joran was a samurai turned recluse and self-taught poet. In his forest hermitage he hung portraits of Chinese poets, and composed poems in Chinese, all the while pursuing a quiet social life.

The Tokugawa shogunate styled itself after neo-Confucian ideas of self-cultivation and righteous government, claiming for itself a governance based on "selfless intentions, pure dedication, and moral fiber." Despite origins in secular Zen thought, Japanese neo-Confucianism affirmed the existing order, authority, individuality, and intellectual pursuits. The exemplar of neo-Confucianism -- but also an active observer of his contemporary culture -- was Fujiwara Seika. Despite the dominance of neo-Confucian ideals, Taoism played an important formative and ongoing role in philosophy and in the promotion of values shared by neo-Confucians.


Brown concludes that

The Four Graybeards, representing the positive valuation of reclusion during their sojourning on Mt. Shang and conversely the sanctioning of political order in their return to the Han court, symbolize both the rejection and validation of power. In related fashion, the Seven Sages represent a refusal to serve the government and devotion to self-cultivation. Yet, because their rejection of politics in favor of devotion to self-exploration through the arts does not directly threaten the political order, it actually serves to support that order by providing a safe outlet for potentially subversive men marginalized by political struggles or by their philosophical views.

Thus Brown concludes that "aesthetic reclusion is political ambivalent." Criticism of the existing social and political order was first presented as a personal choice but transmuted art into a ritualistic expression, fostering an anti-structure or even a counter-culture. Aesthetic reclusion was not the ascetic reclusion of Saigyo, Ryokan and the hijiri (which very well might represent a potential threat to the existing order), nor was it the secularized and amorphous concept of wabi in modern times.

Interest in reclusion was widespread in Japanese society, as evident from the "plethora" of hermit paintings and screens. The elaboration and mix of thematic story material further extended the cultural impact of eremitic ideas in Japanese society.

"The relation of art to culture is not reflective so much as it is reflexive," author Brown notes. Culture is the context of art. Art is not a mere reflection of or a product of culture. In this sense, eremitism, too, transformed Japanese culture and was not merely a product of it. The hermit paintings were not mirrors or by-products but "transformative entities" shaping the very fabric of Momoyama culture.

This stimulating book is filled with information specific to its subject but also suggestive of many branching topics of interest. The book has nearly thirty pages of bibliographical references and thirty-four illustrations (black and white) of hermit paintings discussed in the text. This landmark exploration sets a standard for comprehensive studies of eremitism.