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Bada Shanren: Myths, madness and a new way of painting

By LI YINGXIN | 2020-01-16
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
“A Bird on Parched Wood” by Bada Shanren Photo: FILE


Bada Shanren (1626–1705) is the literary name of one of the most famous individualist painters of the early Qing period. Details of his life, even his real name, are unclear, but he is commonly known as Zhu Da, which is believed as his nickname. Born of royal descent, Zhu was a direct descendant of the Ming Dynasty prince Zhu Quan who had a feudal establishment in present-day Jiangxi Province. Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, instituted his government with the thought of making everything easy for his descendants. Meanwhile, upon his orders, the descendants of the Ming imperial line were banned from the imperial examination, which was the main portal of access to an official career. 
The royals did enjoy a prosperous life when the Ming Empire was in its heyday. When the country began to decline, however, they felt an increasing pressure maintaining their extravagant lifestyles. Zhu’s father even began to sell his paintings to support his family. During the reign of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620), under the unbearable pressure caused by the huge cost of the royalty, the court decided to allow the royal members to obtain official posts through the imperial exam on condition that they gave up their hereditary titles. Therefore, 15-year-old Zhu Da passed the imperial exam and became a candidate with a low degree. He may have been an ambitious young man at that time, eager to move ahead. 
Life as a monk-artist 
Zhu’s dream of being a successful official never came true. Four years after he passed the imperial exam, the Ming emperor committed suicide and the Manchu armies swept south and took Beijing, overthrowing the Ming to establish the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The newly established regime ordered the execution of all the members of the Ming imperial lineage at once. Fearing retaliation, Zhu retreated to a Buddhist monastery and sought anonymity as a monk for more than 30 years. As the Qing court became firmly established and circumstance more stable, he left the priesthood and began to roam around as a monk-artist. 
In 1680, Zhu had a nervous breakdown when he was invited to the house of the magistrate of Linchuan County in Jiangxi. One evening he tore up his monk’s robe, burned it and ran back to the provincial capital, Nanchang, where he behaved like a madman among the stalls in the market, sporadically crying or laughing. A nephew of his recognized him and took him home with him. Zhu never returned to the temple, even after recovering from his mental breakdown. He settled down in Nanchang, his birthplace, making a living by selling his paintings. The hardship that he experienced kept him suspended between insanity and impassioned creativity. He finally developed a magnificent career as a professional artist. 
An erratic artist 
Zhu had adopted a series of descriptive pseudonyms, most notably Bada Shanren (literally “Eight Eminent Mountain Men”), a name by which he is most often known today. “Bada Shanren” was first signed on Zhu’s paintings at age 59, the stylized vertical writing of which looks like the characters for laugh (xiao) and cry (ku). It is believed that this pseudonym implied Zhu’s confusion and feelings of grief for the trauma of his country and family, as well as his proud defiance of the Qing regime. He never marked the date of his paintings using the reign name of the Qing Dynasty. The dates of his paintings were written following the Sexagenary Cycle. 
Zhu was quite poor in his late life, as his paintings were sold cheap. However, he was often critical of the buyers. An official named Rong Luo was of a family originally employed in official posts during the Ming Dynasty, a family which turned to serve the Qing court after the fall of the Ming. Rong Luo was favored by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, but Zhu despised him. Bothered by Rong’s frequent invitations, Zhu agreed to draw a painting for him. Later, Lord Rong received a painting of a pair of ugly peacocks, on which a poem was inscribed with a biting tone—“Peacocks, flowers of fame, rainy bamboo screen/ Bamboo tips, the greater part grown from ink/ How can one bear to discuss those with ‘three ears’?/ Luckily, it’s spring, as they have waited for an audience since the second strike of the night.” (The scholars who collaborated with the Manchus were satirized as sycophants or ‘three ears’—a metaphorical term for ‘slave.’ In the poem, like peacocks and flowers of fame, they are characterized as servile opportunists, eagerly listening with an extra ear, prepared to stay up all night in their quest for worldly success. In contrast, the bamboo plants overshadowed in the misty rain represent men of integrity and inner strength who are imbued with learning, but unfortunately are neglected.) 
Individualistic and outlandish style 
Animals in the paintings of Bada Shanren are known for their “eye rolling” or glaring eyes. In Bada’s paintings, animals usually have big, rhombus-shaped or square eyes, sinister and watchful. Their odd postures, often standing on one foot and pulling their heads back inside their feathers and hunching forward, harbor complex messages, their symbolism known only to Bada. These animals are believed to represent the arrogance and aloofness of the artist, often charged with emotion. These distorted images use an individualistic and outlandish style that was uniquely his. In 2000, the painting “A Bird” by Bada was sold for 4,400,000 yuan, the highest realized price of all Bada’s sales. Ten years later, this painting was sold for 62,720,000 yuan. 
Bada’s painting style evolved throughout his life. His earliest surviving works inherited the manipulation of ink and calligraphic skills from traditional Chinese painting, possessing a sense of peace and purity. Bada’s paintings started to convey a unique style in his middle age. This style continued to mature after his nervous breakdown, represented in the characteristically stark-eyed animals. Towards the end of his life, however, Bada resurrected the familiar imagery and symbolism of his early works, which were believed to be attributed to Chan Buddhism in which gradual enlightenment is pursued through study and meditation. 
The article was edited and translated from XDKB. NET. 
edited by REN GUANHONG