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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Destruction as Construction: Theorizing Demolition in Premodern China
3: Beyond a Ruling Guide: The Aesthetic Effect of Ruins in Shuijin Zhu
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
National Taiwan University, Taiwan (Republic of China)
The aesthetic appreciation of ruins is often considered to be a characteristic of postmodernism, yet when Li Daoyuan (d. 527), a Northern Wei official, composes Shuijing zhu (Commentary of the Classic of Waterways), he had already noticed the significance of the demolished sites. Shuijin zhu, as a Gazetteer, should function as a guide for effective governance. It usually incorporates information such as population, customs, local goods, and natural products. However, Li Daoyuan also portrays abandoned cities, collapsed steles, and devastated buildings in his compilation. His unusual choice of documents not only contradicts the original function of the genre but also allows readers to enjoy a gazetteer aesthetically. The aesthetic feelings come from the numerous abandoned sites Li records, creating an atmosphere of meditation on the past. Comparing the past with the present reminds the readers of how vulnerable people are both in time and in unavoidable changes in life. Moreover, when ruin was recognized, Li names it instead of introducing the wreckage. This arrangement may imply that he aims to communicate with the literati who shared similar knowledge and aesthetic taste. Therefore, even though Li does not provide an elaborative account for each site, his readers would still be triggered to mourn, contemplate, and commemorate. By depicting the ruins, Li recalls and repairs the lost and the destructed in Shuijing zhu. Furthermore, he transforms the genre by changing the implied readers from a ruler to the literati.