Diffusion of Absence: The Official
Appropriation of Yuan Zhen in Modern Tongzhou

By Daisy Yan Du

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 2 (Fall 2010), pp. 130-160

Drawing upon multiple disciplinary perspectives, this essay explores the official appropriation of the historical figure Yuan Zhen (779-831) to promote an official version of the Mountain-Climbing Festival in modern Tongzhou (today’s Dazhou), a small city located in Sichuan Province. In the spring of 2007, the government of modern Tongzhou, in an attempt to connect its relatively obscure place with the national center, officialized the traditional Mountain-Climbing Festival and attributed the origin of this festival to Yuan Zhen, a famous poet politician in the Tang Dynasty serving as the Adjutant of Tongzhou during his years of exile there (815-819). With the institutionalization of this Mountain-Climbing Festival, Yuan Zhen was transformed into a cultural icon and became a spectacle par excellence that imposed his presence upon every corner of the city. Tracing the origin of the Mountain-Climbing Festival and analyzing the official literary and spatial representations of Yuan Zhen within the larger cultural context of China, the essay demonstrates that Yuan Zhen was never present in Tongzhou, and that his ubiquitous presence since 2007 is the result of the local government’s strategic and creative appropriation of his image and name to serve various cultural, political, and economic purposes. Yuan Zhen is a profitable absence in the context of commodity economy in contemporary China.