To try to speak of the pleasures of intimate friendship as portrayed in early and middle-period writings in classical Chinese is an exercise fraught with difficulties, even though nearly all talk in those periods is grounded in a fundamental appreciation of the subtle ethics of human relatedness. Unlike all the other pleasures in the writings that have come down to us, however, no theoretical treatment analyses the pleasures of intimate friendship. This apparent lacuna may not be the result of an oversight or a case of simple preservation bias. After all, no friendship is exactly like any other friendship, which makes it exceedingly hard to generalise about them. And while having close friends is deemed absolutely vital to a person’s sense of self and the world, friendships are apt to be forged from inconsequential, repetitive acts whose precise significance and value often eludes others. Then, too, the sources generally cast friendship as “pre-verbal,” except that many friendships flourish in the context of amiable conversations. Friendship can sometimes be “fated,” meaning, determined by a conjunction of events or by the demands of parents whom one is bound to as by “fate,” even if most friendships presuppose voluntary associations. Sadly, friendship all too often is seen best in retrospect, when it is gone, as letters severing relations, not to mention thousands of “parting poems” in classical Chinese attest. As if all the foregoing aspects of intimate friendship did not hopelessly complicate our picture of early and middle-period friendship in China, talk of sympathetic resonances—the chief metaphor for friendship—tends invariably toward the mystical, rather than the analytical. Thus those eager to know more about the history of writing about friendship’s pleasures must carefully examine the scenes and tropes of friendship, as we will do in this seminar, to gain insights into the particular inflections of the friendships on view.
Michael Nylan is one of the foremost historians working on early China today and one of the world’s leading scholars of pre-modern China. Her interests span aesthetic theories and material culture, intellectual history and religious beliefs. Professor Nylan is a RSAP Distinguished Visitor and her visit to ANU is funded by the RSAP Distinguished Visitor Program. She will deliver the 74th George E Morrison Lecture at the ANU.
To allow for informal discussion, the seminar will be followed by drinks at the Fellows Bar at University House and a dinner beginning at 6:30pm with the guest speaker at the Red Chilli Restaurant. All are welcome, though due to budget limitations, participants will need to pay for their own drinks and food.
As reservations must be made at the restaurant, please RSVP by noon on the day before the seminar to Jasmine email@example.com if you are interested in attending dinner. There is no need to RSVP for drinks.