Advance through Retreat 以退为进
"Advance through retreat" is a stratagem elaborated in the Chinese military treatise The Art of War. Curator Martina Koeppel-Yang chose this as the theme of the exhibition. Attributed to Sun Tzu [Sunzi], a general who lived in the 6th Century BC, The Art of War was not only the most important book on military strategy of its time but continued to influence Eastern and also Western military and business tactics and strategies to the present day. For the curator this stratagem is best expressed by a historic photograph of Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), one of the most powerful generals of the late Qing Dynasty, wearing the traditional coat and hat of a Taoist hermit and sitting in a fishing boat. The image of Yuan in a hermit’s disguise along with his strategic retreat has therefore been the starting point for the concept of this exhibition Yuan here made use of the traditional trope of the loyal official — a lonely literati in a fishing boat. He did so to protest against his dismissal by the Qing court in 1909. The location Yuan had chosen for his retreat could not have been farther away from the usual perception of an appropriate setting for a lonely hermitage. Indeed, Huanshang in Henan Province, where he stayed until 1911, was a busy traffic junction. Together with Yuan’s use of the common trope of the loyal official, the evident ambivalence of his retreat from the center of power was to be read as an invitation for the Qing Court to make use of him again and to eventually invite him to govern as president of the first Chinese Republic. Quietly waiting for an opportune moment, Yuan used the strategy "advance through retreat", as many officials did before him. The image of the loyal literati choosing to be a recluse in times of conflict with the court developed into one of the most resilient tropes in Chinese art and literature and haunts Chinese culture like a kind of spectre.
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