The Brilliant Recluse
By Tim Hazell
The figure of the recluse appears at the dawn of Chinese history, unique and quintessentially Oriental, alongside the more typical warrior or bureaucrat. Chinese literature came to reflect this dualism in its characterization of prose as “action” and poetry as “reclusion.”
By the time of Confucius, sequestered living was viewed with increased sophistication. The ascetic who retreated into the wilderness had become someone who upheld a skeptic’s distance from worldly affairs, yet was anxious to recount that experience to an audience. Balancing moral integrity with an active community role was a challenge.
Seventeenth-century China witnessed violent schisms between rural populations and corrupt eunuch emperors. Foreign threats by powerful Manchus led to the collapse of the last native imperial Ming dynasty in 1644. The Manchus established their own Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Turbulence was countered by exceptional artistic achievement.
At the forefront of this cataclysm, China’s scholar-officials known as Literati (Wenren) managed the empire’s swollen bureaucracy. These exam-selected public servants, rigorously schooled in the humanities, were also among China’s most accomplished poets, calligraphers, and painters. The Wenren felt encroaching pressure from rising merchant classes who aspired to join their elite circle.
Traumatized scholar-artists sought comfort in time-honored practices of reclusion, renouncing the intrigue of court for private lives in search of higher learning. Their prose, poetry, and paintings depict journeys of self-reflection, giving voice to subjective thoughts and feelings unprecedented in Chinese art.
Aesthetic influences extended to cuisine. Harmony between ingredients and presentation were cultivated. A vendor’s specialty in China, tea eggs are a classic example of unaltered form and innovative technique. The tealeaf sauce seeps in through cracks in the shells, flavoring deeply and creating exquisite patterns. Served as snacks or appetizers, tea eggs improve with age, but disappear quickly!
2 dozen small eggs
4 tbsp. salt
3 tbsp. light (Kikkoman) soy sauce
2 whole star anise (available at Bonanza)
4 black tea bags
Rinse the eggs in cold water to remove any dirt. Puncture the wider end with a straight pin to prevent cracking. Bring six cups of water to a boil, turn heat down to maintain a slow simmer and lower the eggs in with a spoon. Simmer about five minutes. Place the pot under a running cold faucet until full of water. Soak the eggs for a minute, and then tap each one lightly with a spoon until a network of fine cracks forms. Put the eggs back into the pot with enough cold water to cover. Add the seasonings. Bring to a slow boil over medium heat, adjusting the heat to maintain very gentle simmering. Cover and simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Remove tea bags. Adjust brine with extra soy sauce if necessary. It should be salty with a subtle aroma of star anise. Cool and then chill in the brine with shells on. Shell the amount you need. Rewarm over low heat or serve room temperature. Keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.