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Reforming the Way: The Palace and the Village in Daoist Paradise


Like any major religion, Daoism has a complex history and multiple branches, but among its most persistent elements are secluded mountain paradises populated both by divinities and by human beings. Ideas regarding the means of access to these transcendent abodes have been less consistent: Should Daoist adepts strive to be virtuous, or should they labor to “restore” themselves through esoteric, elite magic? A provocative answer to this question was given by the poet Tao Qian (a.d. 365–427), who sided with Daoism’s most ancient authority by suggesting that Daoist harmony could not be achieved through mere individual study but, rather, could be found only in an uncorrupted social fabric, in his case defined as a humble lost village. This utopian vision, brought to life in the poem Peach Blossom Spring, not only rejected the esoteric values of the Daoist elite but also called into question imperial hegemonic structures in general. The fact that the poem’s rustic utopian enclave was understood in these terms by generations of Chinese scholars and artists is revealed by the contrasting architectural forms used to represent these alternative concepts of the Daoist ideal: the palace and the village, the garden of leisure and the working farm.

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