CLP 164: 1990s Chang Feng, Hu Yukun. K'un-ts'an (last unfinished). Drafts written for (unfinished) early Qing book.


(written for early Qing book—K'UN-TS'AN follows)

Chang Feng was introduced briefly in the preceding volume (Distant Mts. p. 214 and Pl. 114) as the painter of the landscape background for a portrait by Tseng Ching, a work probably done around 1645. This must have been early in Chang's career as a painter; his birthdate is unknown, but he seems to have begun painting seriously around the time of the dynastic change. He was born in Nanking into an impoverished family; his father was a military man, his older brother a battalion commander in the Imperial Guard. He was married, but lost his wife and never remarried. He managed to take the local chu-sheng degree while still young, but gave up thoughts of a public-service career on the fall of Ming, and standard sources tell us that he lived in semi-seclusion after that.

Some time in the early years of the Ch'ing, however, he traveled north to Beijing, according to Chou Liang-kung, dressed like a soldier and carrying a sword. Presumably he made the trip, as Shih-t'ao was to do later, in hopes of patronage and perhaps some kind of employment. He was entertained by high officials wherever he went, repaying their hospitality with paintings. Around 1660 he returned to the south, feeling that he had had enough of life in the capital; he settled in Nanking, and since he had no home of his own, lived in Buddhist and Taoist temples. He had won the favor of Chou Liang-kung during Chou's period of imprisonment in Peking (1658-61) by sending him a painting of a man caressing a sword with his eyes fixed on it, inscribed "Although the sword is not sharp, it is not dull either; He secretly fondles his sword, showing his great hatred." Chou adds, "I was moved by his intention." In 1662, after his return to Nanking, Chou invited Chang to come live with him. Chang accepted and stayed with Chou in a temple for five or six nights, but died of some illness shortly afterward, at a relatively young age. After his death he appeared in a dream to his older brother, telling him that he was living in the heaven of immortals in a small house in which he had set up portraits he had painted of T'ao Ch'ien and Chu-ko Liang.[1]

The report that Chang Feng's dressed as a soldier and carried a sword, the subject of the painting he did for Chou Liang-kung and its inscription, his brother's dream (which must represent the brother's perception of some central concern in his life), all hint at political involvement of some kind, or perhaps a frustrated urge for involvement. He and Chou Liang-kung may have been in some way allied in this: although Chou held several posts under the Manchus, it has been suggested that he might have been a secret adherent to the loyalist cause, dedicated to restoration of native role. The murky political atmosphere of Nanking in the early Ch'ing, the issues and allegiances and resentments lingering from the last days of the Ming, may never be entirely clarified, and we can only try to sense their effect on the lives of artists and others.

Two imaginary portraits of Chu-ko Liang from Chang Feng's hand survive, dated 1651 and 1654, and at least one of T'ao Yüan-ming.[2] The figure of Chu-ko Liang in the 1654 picture (Pl. ) is drawn in loose, seemingly lax brushstrokes laid on so wet as to blur the image slightly on the absorbent paper. Chang Feng's inscription, written in large characters, includes a dedication and the information that he "did it while tipsy after drinking wine." A second inscription by the artist in the upper left, written three days later and presumably in a state of sobriety, praises Chu-ko Liang and T'ao Yüan-ming. . . . ADD

Interpreting the complex message of this work will take us some way toward understanding Chang Feng's other works and his position in early Ch'ing painting. Chu-ko Liang (A.D.181-234), the great military advisor of the Three Kingdoms period who remained in seclusion until he felt the right time had come and then emerged to advise Liu Pei in defeating his rivals, was an exemplar sometimes invoked by early Ch'ing writers and artists concerned with the choice between government service and retirement. "A kind of secularism had begun to emerge [in the late Ming] as scholars came to acknowledge that the classical sage heroes were unattainable models of perfection. Historical heroes like Chu-ko Liang, whose exploits were secular and pragmatic in nature and whose example spoke more directly and significantly to the realities of life in the less-than-ideal present, assumed a greater importance."[3] A painting of Chu-ko Liang, then, could express approval and encouragement to someone caught in this dilemma, whichever course he chose. Like Chang's painting done for Chou Liang-kung in prison, it could strengthen resolve, affirm a bond of common purpose between artist and recipient. A painting of T'ao Yüan-ming could similarly celebrate the virtues of retirement: we should recall that only a few years earlier, in 1650, Ch'en Hung-shou had painted his "Scenes from the Life of T'ao Yüan-ming" for Chou Liang-kung, probably to urge on him the wisdom of resigning his position in the Manchu government (see Distant Mts., Pl. 136.) Invoking a personage of antiquity in delivering such a message diminished the danger that more direct expressions of loyalist sentiment would have entailed. On his 1651 painting of Chu-ko Liang, Chang Feng inscribed a well-known line from Chu-ko's petition to the emperor: "The former emperor knew how trustworthy I was." This could be taken as a covert statement of continuing dedication to the Ming.[4]

Chang's confession (or claim) of tipsiness at the time he painted, his adoption of signs of eccentricity, and his prominent display of both in the styles of the painting and its inscription, were (among other things) further safeguards, meant to deflect any suspicion of serious subversiveness in either artist or dedicatee. Chang Feng's given name was a help: Feng means "wind," but also "profligacy, lack of restraint." The late Sung master Liang K'ai, surely one of Chang Feng's principal models as a figure painter, had also adopted that stance and was known as Liang Feng-tzu or Liang the Wastrel. Chang Feng's characteristically buoyant brush manner, then, for all its air of freedom from mundane constraints, probably had political resonances for him and his audience.

That perception, in turn, may color our responses to Chang Feng's other works, mostly landscapes with figures that seem on the face of them to be relatively traditional. The implications of sparse dry-brush drawing of austere landscapes have been explored already in our discussions of Wan Shou-ch'i and the Anhui masters. Some of Chang Feng's works are in that manner, for instance the 1644 album in the Princeton Art Museum (Pl. ). Others, notably a handscroll of 1648 (Pl. ), are in the loose, calligraphic brushwork that signified escape from social and other bounds. Chang Feng's style plays between these modes, from one painting to another, loosening and tightening in response, we may assume, to shifts in expressive effect to suit certain functions and recipients, as well as shifts in the artist's mood.

The Princeton album of 1644 (Pl. ) consists of twelve leaves, with facing inscriptions by the artist. In one inscription Chang Feng states that he was inspired by lines from a poem by Yüan Hung-tao (1568-1610), and although he is not here specifically crediting the ideas of that famous poet and literary theorist, he may well have been affected by Yüan's conception of the "carefree man," who moves freely among social roles, "despised by the 'worthy men' of our society" but able to attain a state of self-contentment.[5] The figures who appear in many of Chang Feng's paintings seem emblems of that state, and it is also conveyed in the styles he employs.

The landscapes of the Princeton album, however, are mostly unpeopled, or peopled only by tiny figures in boats and houses. The artist's attention is given mainly to masses of earth, which he draws firmly with the softest of brushstrokes, and to the spaces and expanses of water around them. Indications of how humans move and live in this subdued world are correspondingly subtle and understated. In one leaf (Pl. ), paths indicate how the man who is seen through the window of his riverside retreat in the lower left of the picture might climb the bluff that looms above him. In another (Pl. ), a distinction is made between the recreational fisherman in lower left and the serious one to the right, with nets drying on his larger boat. Paintings of this kind assume a high level of cultivation in their viewers, approaching the recherche.

The 1648 handscroll (Pl. ) is made up of a poem written in the artist's bold calligraphy, followed by the painting, which Chang Feng has inscribed with the date and a dedication to a Nanking poet named Yang Chiung-po. A simple reading of the painting--one that is partly offered but in the end not really authorized by the artist--would see it as a late echo of typical Southern Sung-style compositions, as these were replicated endlessly by followers of Ma Yüan: the scholar-poet has come out to enjoy nature and stands, backed by huge boulders, gazing into a region of void activated by a twisting tree. A servant-boy waits behind, holding a wrapped ch'in (zither). In this reading, the disparity between the fine drawing of the figures and the roughness of all the rest would be resolved by an old formula, which Chang himself repeats in one of his preserved statements on painting: "Paintings should be satisfying seen close-up and also satisfying seen from a distance. This is my way of looking at paintings, and if it is realized, [the painting] is a true imprint of my mind. From close up one looks at the minor elements; from a distance one looks at the large design." He goes on to cite the praise of old critics for the tenth-century landscapist Tung Yüan's paintings, which looked rough and disordered until one viewed them from a distance, whereupon the scenery wondrously took form.[6] Essentially the same observation, similarly intended as a theoretical support for rough-brush painting, is made in the slightly later essay by Tan Chung-kuang (p. ).

But Chang's picture does not in fact work that way. The landscape has nothing of the made-to-be-gazed-at elegance of pictures in the Ma Yüan manner, nor is there truly convincing space to draw the gaze of the man. Unlike scholar-gentlemen in Southern Sung paintings who project in their postures and upturned faces their vibrant responsiveness to their surroundings, Chang Feng's figure stands impassive, seeming self-absorbed. Even more strikingly un-Sung-like is the reading of the picture forced on the viewer by the radical inconsistency in execution. Unrolling it from right to left, one encounters first the servant-boy among rocks--or, more properly, among large splashes and rude strokes of ink: in the context established by the neat execution of the boy's figure, the "rocks" are incoherent, unreadable. The same visual disjuncture is carried through the rest: the delicately-drawn man standing midway in the composition gazes serenely into a space occupied by the calligraphic flourishes of the tree and by Chang's vigorously-written inscription. The impact of the work depends on exactly this perceived contradiction in the artist's state of mind and intent: if his brush is sufficiently under control to allow these figures, how are we to read the fervor and loss of control implicit in the rest? The artist permits no answer to this puzzle except the right one: that his wildness is an expressive convention, a cultivated reference to "wild" painting and "wild-man" artists over the centuries. The "untrammeled" gestures of his hand are allusions as calculated as are his allusions to the Ma Yüan model.

The smallness of Chang Feng's surviving oeuvre is partly to be accounted for by the brevity of his active period, but also, along with the diversity it exhibits, by a creative approach that did not permit the facile replication of some successful formula, such as too many painters of his time allowed themselves. Chang seems never to repeat himself. The nature of his creative process is nicely caught in another of his recorded statements: (Translate)[7]

The desired product of such an ideal creative situation is well exemplified by a painting that is probably Chang Feng's best-known, his "Gazing at a Red-leafed Maple Across a Ravine," dated 1660 (Pl. ). It is painted mostly in ink, but touches of red color for the sparse remaining foliage of the maples enhance the poignancy of the theme. Here the Southern Sung model is approached more closely: all parts of the composition work to focus our gaze on the figure, whose gaze we follow, in turn, across the ravine to the trees. The man's stance, with head lifted and hands clasped behind his back, communicates concentration; his mind, we infer, is occupied with thoughts of nostalgia for times lost, the lateness of the year and of his life. More successfully than in the 1648 handscroll, Chang Feng makes us read the discontinuity between finely-drawn figure and rough-brush landscape as an aspect of the image and its interpretation, the man-in-nature theme, rather than as a habit of the hand. The strong compositional integration of the parts aids in this basically representational reading. The "wild" brushstrokes used for the earth masses and the tree describe adroitly, to our pleased surprise, the volume of the bluff, its sunlight and shade, the stiffness and roughness of the trunk and branches; the blurring of brushwork in the lower part to suggest a light mist in the ravine is masterly. Even so, Chang's achievement remains very different from any rendering of a similar scene by a Southern Sung academy master, in its far more open acknowledgement of its character as brushstrokes on paper. The artist's inscription recognizes this quality of the work by commenting on the facture and materials instead of offering, as one might expect, a lyrical couplet or quatrain about the scene and the man's experience of it. Chang Feng writes: "It has brush, it has ink; but these depend on the excellence of the paper. Master Mulberry [the paper] has from ancient times been foremost among the treasures of the scholar's study."

In addition to these works in his typical light brushwork, Chang Feng essayed the monumental landscape manner in a few of his paintings, perhaps inspired by old works in that manner that he saw on his northern sojourn, or perhaps as a response to the revival of Northern Sung landscape style still going on in Nanking. In his works of this monumental kind, the masses of earth and rock are more heavily defined and modeled, and are packed into tighter, more stable compositions. Good examples are the undated "Listening to the Waterfall" in the Princeton Art Museum and a winter scene with a man searching for blossoming plum, dated 1656, in the Capital Museum, Beijing.[8]

References in the text

[1]See Chou Liang-kung's section on Chang Feng in Tu-hua lu, HSTS ed. ch. III, pp. 34-36; translated in Hongnam Kim, Chou Liang-kung, II, 116-122. For biographical treatments of Chang Feng see also Yonezawa Yoshiho, "Chô Fû to sono geijutsu" (Chang Feng and His Art), Yamato Bunka 18, 1955, pp. 62-69; and Jao Tsung-i, "Chang Ta-feng chi ch'i chia-shih" (Chang Ta-feng and His Family), in Journal of the Institute of Chinese STudies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, vol. VIII no. 1, 1976, pp. 51-70.

[2] The 1654 painting of Chu-ko Liang is reproduced here as Pl. . The 1651 painting exists in three versions, two of which have been published: one formerly in the Ho Kuan-wu collection, see T'ien-ch'i shu-wu ts'ang hua, Shanghai, 1939; the other in a Japanese private collection, see Yonezawa Yoshiho, Painting in the Ming Dynasty, Pl. 29. The Ho Kuan-wu version seems clearly to be the original; the version in Japan and another formerly in a New York dealer's hands are probably the work of the late Chang Ta-ch'ien, the leading modern forger of Chinese paintings, who admired Chang Feng enough to adopt his name for his studio, the Ta-feng T'ang. A painting by Chang Feng of T'ao Yüan-ming smelling chrysanthemums, dated 1660, formerly Chang Ta-ch'ien collection, see Ta-feng-t'ang ming-chi I, 30, is now owned by C. C. Wang , New York.

[3]John D. Langlois, Jr., "Chinese Culturalism and the Yüan Analogy: Seventeenth-century Perspectives," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 40, 1980, pp. 355-398; this passage on p. 359.

[4]It is so interpreted by Fu Shen, "The 'Dry Linear' Style," p. 605.

[5]See Jonathan Chaves, "The Expression of Self in the Kung-an School: Non-Romantic Individualism," in: Robert E. Hegel and Richard C. Hessney, ed., Expressions of Self in Chinese Literature, New York, 1985, pp. 123-150.

[6]From a letter from Chang Feng to a certain Cheng Ju-ch'i, in Teng Shih, ed., T'an-i lu (MSTS III,10, pp. 273-74.

[7]Teng Shih, ed., T'an-i lu, p. 274, from a letter to one Ch'eng Yu-hung.

[8]See Wen Fong, ed., Images of the Mind, no. 36, pp. 404-407; and Chung-kuo ku-tai shu-hua ching-p'in lu (Masterpieces of Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy), Beijing, v. I, 1984, pl. 50.

Hu Yü-k'un

Until recently, it was difficult to understand the esteem in which Hu Yü-k'un was held by connoisseurs of his time; too little of his work was accessible to permit judgements. Now, although his known extant paintings are still few, enough have come to light to support the high reputation he was accorded in Nanking art circles in the early Ch'ing. While certainly not a major master to be ranked with K'un-ts'an or Kung Hsien, he emerges as an artist of strong originality and highly cultivated taste. In the Chinese view, these virtues are the natural products of his family background, his upbringing, and his social intercourse with cultured people; they were beyond attainment through any course of study or training. Whether or not we ourselves find this argument persuasive, it is useful as an initial perception in considering Hu Yü-k'un; at the least, it is a clue to what he intended in his paintings and how they were understood in his time.

Hu Yü-k'un was born into an old Nanking gentry family that had produced a number of notable scholars, poets, and amateur artists. His uncle Hu Tsung-jen (active 1590-1630), little remembered as a painter today, was singled out for praise by Chou Liang-kung, who adds equal praise for the nephew:

Painting in Chin-ling [Nanking] is the most accomplished in all the Kiangsu region. Recently, only Hu Ch'ang-po [Tsung-jen] sometimes does work with a lofty and antique remoteness, staying clear of the tendency toward seductive prettiness; he attains the profundities of the Southern school. Among the family members who follow him, my friend Hu Yüan-jun [Yü-k'un] is outstanding; every application of his ink is treasured like silver. This is what is referred to as the "untrammeled class" (i-p'in) being superior to the "divine class" (shen-p'in). He and I have known each other for more than thirty years. When we are together we discuss brush and ink; in our leisure we talk about painting. If one speaks of the [artist's] personal quality being high [and the quality of his painting correspondingly high], only Yüan-jun doesn't have to feel embarrassed by these words.[9]

In his section on Hu Tsung-jen in Tu-hua lu, Chou Liang-kung tells us that he "was the son of a family that originally was rich, but as he became old, he became poor. But he would not go and see [i.e. curry favor with] dignitaries." None of his few surviving paintings seems today to bear out Chou's high assessment of him; a landscape in the Ni Tsan manner dated 1598 in the Nanking Museum can represent him, and offers little that strikes one as fresh interpretation of the formula.[10] But we should remember that in 1598 such close imitation of Yüan models was still uncommon enough, especially in Nanking, to earn someone a reputation among the like-minded for doing the right thing, even if he was not doing it very interestingly.

The family tradition that Hu Yü-k'un inherited, then, was more a legacy of cultivated taste and correct stylistic choices (by Southern-school criteria) than a family style or tradition of technical excellence. His use of styles associated with the scholar-amateurs for paintings on which his livelihood largely depended may seem anomolous, but there were many others, as we have seen, in that situation in the early Ch'ing. The little we know about his life indicates that he depended largely on patrons who admired his paintings, and especially Chou Liang-kung. He met Chou first in Shantung in 1641, introduced by Fang I-chih. He was one of five artists who accompanied Chou to Fukien in 1656 for Chou's trial there, and was with him for some time during his imprisonment in Peking. In 1660 Hu Yü-k'un returned to Nanking; Chou wrote him a farewell poem. He took part in Chou Liang-kung's great party of 1669, along with many other Nanking painters. Chou wrote that Hu Yü-k'un was his "live-in guest" over a twenty-year period, who had contributed more paintings to his collection than anyone else. Hu's dated works are from 1660 to 1681; a few extant or recorded works can be dated by context to an earlier period, the 1640s and 1650s. His death date, like his birthdate, is unknown.[11]

Besides being a painter, Hu Yü-k'un was an accomplished seal-carver and a poet who expressed in his poems a sense of nostalgia for Nanking's past, before the conquest. Most of his paintings are devoted to the same theme, portraying well-known places in and around Nanking. Like some Suchou artists in the sixteenth century, Hu seems to have built his career around pictures of the local scenery; but where many of the Suchou-school works have the schematic character of picture-maps, Hu's are mostly evocative, poetic images, somewhat removed in style and intent from truly topographical works, drawing on his viewers' memories of the places instead of describing them. Three albums of scenes of Nanking by Hu Yü-k'un are known, two from old reproduction books and one in the original, an album of twelve leaves dated 1660 (Pl. ).[12]

The 1660 album, the earliest of Hu Yü-k'un's works of this kind, is the most topographical in character (Pl. ). All but one of the leaves represent particular places, which are named in the artist's two-character labels written at the top of each; and Hu provides more identifying detail than he was to do in later works. The presence of collector's seals of Chou Liang-kung might tempt us to speculate that it was painted for Chou to boost his spirits during his imprisonment in Beijing.[13] But in view of Hu's intimacy with Chou, it is unlikely that he would fail to write a dedication on any work done for him; the album bears no dedication, and was probably done without any specific recipient in mind, and later acquired by Chou Liang-kung. The care the artist has taken in describing the scenes pictorially suits better such an anonymous recipient than someone who, like Chou, had a long first-hand familiarity with them.

Most of the places depicted have historical associations, or are sites of old Buddhist temples. Two leaves, the second and the eighth, are exceptions. The second (Pl. ), a rainy scene with a man in the open upper storey of a house and another approaching on the road below under an umbrella, bears a two-word label that means "Leaning on Emptiness" and may be the name of the house. The leaf takes its place among the fairly few successful portrayals of rainy scenery in later Chinese painting; Shih-t'ao's leaf (Pl. ) is another. Hu conveys the force of the downpour and allows it to obscure all but a corner of the picture. A waterfall is dimly visible to the left of the house, and hilltops with bushes above. The eighth leaf (Pl. ) is a view of the Ch'in-Huai Canal, which flows through the southern part of the city. This was the famous pleasure district of Nanking, with the whole length of the canal within the city crowded by ornately-decorated "flower boats," and with wine shops and brothels lining its banks.[14] In Hu Yü-k'un's picture, people are seen in the open verandas of the waterside houses; they appear to be all men, and are in fact indistinguishable from the scholar-gentlemen seen through study windows in his other paintings--for an artist of Hu's standing to represent the courtesans and prostitutes, even discreetly, would have been "vulgar". Beyond the houses and willows is the city wall, with the pagoda of some temple visible over it.

The third leaf (Pl. ) depicts She-shan, or Ch'i-hsia Shan, located northeast of the city and the site of a great temple, the Ch'i-hsia Ssu. Niches with Buddhist sculptures dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries were carved in the cliffs behind the temple. A very different view of the temple and its rock-cut shrines was painted by Chang Hung in 1634 (see Compelling Image Fig. 1.7 and Pl. 1); Hu Yü-k'un, uncharacteristically, here follows more closely the picture-map version known from woodblock prints of the period (e.g. ibid. Fig. 1.9), with the temple buildings and niches arrayed schematically on the mountainside, unobscured by trees or distance. The inclusion of the Yangtze River with sailing boats at the top is imagined, since the river is too far from the mountain to be visible.

The last leaf (Pl. ), a winter scene (following a convention by which the leaves of an album sometimes moved through the seasons or the months of the year), is an elevated view of Shih-ch'eng, the Stone City Wall. It was part of the wall of a strategically-located citadel built in the third century A.D. overlooking the Yangtze, and was later incorporated into the Nanking city wall. The waterway in Hu Yü-k'un's picture must be the Three Fork Canal which runs past Ch'ing-liang Shan, the hill on which the citadel was built. A bridge in the foreground and boats along the shores tell of the bustling activity of the city. The style of the leaf, and of the album as a whole, is a softened, poeticized naturalism, still more respectful of conventions than Hu Yü-k'un's later works were to be.

Another album by Hu Yü-k'un, less certain in date but probably painted in the winter of 1674-75,[15] depicts mostly imagined scenery rather than specific places (Pl. ). As in Hu's other late works, the touch of the artist's brush is light, ingenuous, and the compositions uncontrived, as though devised spontaneously as he worked. Paintings of this kind--and one could include some works by other Nanking-region masters such as Tsou Chih-lin and Yün Hsiang--lack the sense of solid structure that Orthodox-school landscapes convey, but gain in immediacy, seeming to be first-hand responses to the real world, refined by the artist's cultivated mind but unmediated by established norms and styles. Nevertheless, while conveying this effect, Hu Yü-k'un's pictures are constructed for easy legibility. One simple leaf (Pl. ) presents a large building atop a flat hill; Kung Hsien, one of Hu's many admirers, did similar compositions. The minimal indication of a wall in the lower right corner and the lake with boats and willows are probably a shorthand rendering of the Xuanwu Lake just outside the city wall to the northeast. The seventh leaf (Pl.) is an imagined view of the Five Old Men peaks at Mt. Lu, which Hu may never have seen in reality. Here, as in much of the best work of his late period, Hu applies the ink in overlying brushstrokes of no particular shape, as if abandoning "brush method" to pursue a fresh vision. The blurring of heavy fog, foliage, and terrain forms recalls K'un-ts'an, and the cloud-encircled peaks certain passages in Kung Hsien, such as the upper right of his great "Myriad Peaks" (Pl.) But Hu Yü-k'un's pictorial sensibility is his own.

The tenth leaf (Pl. ), identified in the inscription as a scene "after rain," is another that is echoed by Kung Hsien in several of his paintings: groups of houses among trees on two levels, on the riverbank below and on a shelf above. Hu Yü-k'un's subtle handling of ink tonalities clarifies the space of the scene; the palest of outline drawing and washes suffice to build the knolls and cliffs. The last leaf (Pl.) depicts a place called Heaven's Gate after snow; the artist once went there with a friend, he writes, and although it was bitterly cold, they were filled with poetic sentiments. The two are seen at the bottom riding donkeys through the bare trees; snowy peaks rise dimly above. Again, the style is informal, as Hu relinquishes brush disciplines to embody a poetic idea.

These are paintings of the kind that best substantiate the appraisals of Hu Yü-k'un by Kung Hsien and Chou Liang-kung. Kung writes in a letter to Hu: "Brush and ink as you use them have a special flavor, outside the orthodox paths. Everything is achieved smoothly and spontaneously. You can transcend the commonplace and escape from vulgarity." And Chou begins his section on Hu in Tu-hua lu with this praise: "He is solitary by nature and so is his painting. In his brushwork and use of colors he loves to depict impressionistic and formless voids. As a result, within a fraction of a foot one can imagine a distance of a myriad li."[16]

References in the text

[9]From an inscription by Chou Liang-kung on an album by Hu Yü-k'un; see Chou's Lai-ku-t'ang chi, ch. 23, pp. 6a-b. The same passage apparently appears in Chou's collection of letters; see Hongnam Kim, op. cit., II, p. 68, note 248.

[10]Nan-ching po-wu-yüan ts'ang-hua chi, I, pl. 76.

[11]Hongnam Kim, op. cit., I, pp. 138 and 163.

[12]The reproduced albums are: Hu Yüan-jun Chin-ling ku-chi t'u-ts'e, Shanghai, Commercial Press, 1934, twelve leaves with facing inscriptions, dated 1673; and Ming Hu Yüan-jun Chin-ling ming-sheng t'u-ts'e, Shanghai, Shen-chou Kuo-kuang She, 1920, ten leaves with facing inscriptions, undated. The 1660 album discussed here was formerly in the collection of Huang Chün-pi, Taipei, and was recently sold at auction (Christie's, New York, Dec. 11, 1987, no. 80.) Hanging scroll paintings by Hu Yü-k'un are rare. Two outstanding examples are: "The Ling-ku Temple," dated 1670, Palace Museum, Beijing, see Mei-ch'iu-t'ang ming-jen shu-hua, Shanghai, 194?; and "Landscape in the Manner of Huang Kung-wang," dated 1681, see Christie's New York auction catalog, Nov. 30, 1984, no. 712.

[13]Hongnam Kim, op. cit., III, pp. 33-34, includes it among "extant paintings dedicated to Chou Liang-kung"; strictly speaking, it does not belong in this group, since it bears no dedication.

[14]A nostalgic account of the Ch'in-Huai District by Yü Huai (1616-1696) titled "Diverse Records of Wooden Bridge" has been translated by Howard Levy, with an introductory essay, as A Feast of Mist and Flowers: The Gay Quarters of Nanking at the End of the Ming, Yokohama, 1966.

[15]The last leaf of the album is dated "winter of chia-i"; this cannot be a single year, but must mean "the winter from the chia-x to the i-x year." This leaves open seven possible times, at ten-year intervals, between 1614-15 and 1674-75. But since two of the accompanying colophons are dated 1674 and 1675, and the style appears to be late, the latest of these possibilities is most likely.

[16]For the passage from Kung Hsien's letter, see Teng Shih, ed., T'an-i lu, p. 281; translation by Patricia Berger, see James Cahill, ed., The Restless Landscape, p. 123. For Chou Liang-kung, see Hongnam Kim, op. cit., II, p. 72; Kim's translation.


The second of the four great monk-painters of the early Ch’ing, two years younger than Hung-jen and older by decades than the others (Chu Ta and Shih-t’ao, who will be the subjects of later chapters), was K’un-ts’an (1612-1673), also known as Shih-ch’i.[17] His original family name was Liu, and his birthplace was Wu-ling, the modern Ch’ang-te in northern Hunan. Born on the Buddha’s birthday into a well-to-do family , he was a serious young man who believed himself to have been a Buddhist monk in a previous incarnation and was more inclined to the reading of religious books than to socializing. He suffered through most of his life from some skin disease, possibly either vitiligo or ringworm, that seems to have been beyond cure; this may have aggravated his unsociable nature. Associating with women was repellent to him, and his parents’ efforts to persuade him to marry were fruitless. He studied Ch’an Buddhism while still young from a certain Lung Jen-yen, a local lay Buddhist master, and conceived quite early the fervent desire to leave home and become a monk, but his pleas to his parents to permit this were refused. He gave up studying for an official career and devoted himself to Buddhism. After the death of his mother his desire to enter the priesthood became overwhelming, and was at last carried out. According to Ch’eng Cheng-k’uei, this was when he was twenty (by Chinese count), i.e. in 1631. Chou Liang-kung relates one version of how it happened: “One day his younger brother brought him a felt cap to protect him against the cold. He put it on his head and gazed at himself in the mirror time and again. Suddenly he seized a pair of shears and cut the hat into pieces. He cut off his hair as well and then went away. ”[18] Ch’ien Cheng-chih, a friend who was a Buddhist disciple of Fang I-chih and who composed a biographical notice of K’un-ts’an after his death, gives another account: “In the year 1638, when he was twenty-six years old, K’un-ts’an was chanting the sutras while living at home but he found it difficult to cast off his bonds. One night, after weeping without ceasing, he picked up a knife and shaved his head, causing blood to flow over his face. Prostrating himself before his father’s bed he asked forgiveness for his unfilial behavior. His father then understood the strength of his determination and agreed to his wishes. Master Lung was overjoyed when he heard of this.”[19]

After some period of study with Lung Jen-yen at a monastery in Wu-ling, K’un-ts’an traveled to Nanking, an easy journey by water since Ch’ang-te is at the west end of the Tung-t’ing network of lakes that connects at the eastern end with the Yangtze River. The trip may have been in search of an affiliation with some more established branch of the Ch’an sect. In Nanjing he met and stayed with an old monk who had gone through the same wrenching experience of leaving home to join the Buddhist order, and who gave him guidance. But the question of when and where--or even whether-- he was properly ordained remains unresolved. In 1640 he returned to Hunan and continued his studies there with Master Lung. He lived in a temple in T’ao-yüan County, southwest of Ch’ang-te, and there reached another level of enlightenment under Lung’s tutelage. T’ao-yüan was the very “Peach-blossom Spring” of T’ao Ch’ien’s well-known story in which a fisherman from Wu-ling chances on this elysium, finds a haven there from the troubles of the world, then leaves and loses it forever.

In 1644 the Peach-blossom Spring became a haven of another, less peaceful kind, as the turmoil and perils of the dynastic change forced K’un-ts’an, along with Master Lung and others, to flee into the mountains there. One Chinese scholar, Lu Ming, speculates that K’un-ts’an was fleeing after having become involved with the loyalist general Ho T’eng-chiao, who was leading the Southern Ming forces in Hunan at this time.[20] But there is no evidence to support this claim, and the standard account, that K’un-ts’an and others were fleeing the pillaging troops of Li Tzu-ch’eng, seems more likely. His close friend Ch’eng Cheng-k’uei much later recorded his first-hand account of this experience, which deeply affected the rest of his life. “He often told me how in . . . [1644], when the country was in a state of war, he wandered far into the hidden “land of the Peach Stream” and in these ramblings saw the most wonderful mountains and rivers, many strange trees and rare animals and birds. He heard the sounds of the mountain elves and saw the shades of the spirit, [things] which cannot be described, because no one else has met with them. He led the life of a vagrant tramp, sleeping sometimes by a mountain stream with a stone for a pillow and rinsing his mouth with fresh water, or [at other times] on the top of a rock, like a monkey or a snake. There were times when he had to drink blood [instead of water] and warm his feet with urine. Sometimes he lived in a pigsty, and at other times found shelter from the storm in a tiger’s den. He went through all these miseries and hardships during three months and experienced more extraordinary things than those described in the Shan-hai ching [Classic of Mountains and Seas].”[21] Ch’eng comments that because it is rare for a human to undergo such experiences, one should not pass them over lightly; but that his friend, because he “doesn’t get involved in affairs, nor try to find reason in them, so that he isn’t injured by them,” is able to extract their significance tranquilly and re-create it in his calligraphy and painting, his writings, and his moral behavior. This penetrating perception can be taken as a first step toward our own understanding of K’un-ts’an as an artist.

His activities during the decades that followed are unclear. In 1648-49 the Southern Ming loyalist troops attempted to re-establish the fallen dynasty in the south; they were decisively defeated in the following year, and effective resistance to the Manchus ended, at least for a time. However it was that K’un-ts’an rode out those years, he reappeared in Nanking in 1654 , introduced by Lung Jen-yen to the famous priest Chüeh-lang Tao-sheng, with whom he had already corresponded. He lived for several years at the Pao-en Ssu (Temple) at Ch’ang-kan, south of Nanking, of which Tao-sheng was abbot. There he became Tao-sheng’s disciple, and was put to work in the temple library restoring and editing its great corpus of Buddhist texts, the tripitaka. During these years he came to know Ch’ien Ch’ien-i and other notable scholars and literary men of Nanking. In 1657, through the intervention of Tao-lang, who admired him deeply, he became the head priest of a smaller temple, the Yu-ch’i Ssu at Mt. Tsu-t’ang near Niu-t’ou or Ox-head Mountain, located some twenty-seven li (Chinese miles) south of the city. The name Yu-ch’i (“Secluded Roost”) and the location would suggest a tranquil life, but K’un-ts’an’s two years there were in fact very stressful; there is evidence that he became entangled during this period in bitter factional struggles within the Ch’an sect. These were not only doctrinal but also political, between monks who advocated continuing loyalty to the Ming and others who favored some degree of collaboration with the Manchu rulers. K’un-ts’an was clearly an adherent of the loyalist, anti-Manchu faction; on one occasion he scolded another monk who failed to perform the ritual of obeisance at the Ming tombs. Letters to him from sympathetic friends suggest that he was not on good terms with monks in his own temple, and was forced to combat “devils” among them. In his inscription on the 1664 painting of the Pao-en Ssu (Pl. ) he mixes Confucian-sounding expressions with Buddhist ideas, arguing that Buddhist monks also have their role in governing the world; too many, he says, are lazy--as the Buddha himself, he adds, was not. The issues in which he was embroiled are murky, but the intensity of his implication in them is clear. In inscriptions from later years he writes bitterly of his involvement in factional strife during this period, and of his relief over escaping from it.

His disengagement from all this appears to have been precipatated by the death of Tao-sheng in 1659. When K’un-ts’an joined an assemblage of monks at the temple where Tao-sheng had been abbot to pay his last respects, he learned that the master had designated him as his chosen successor, directing that the symbols of succession, a bamboo ju-i sceptre and a scroll written in Tao-sheng’s own hand in which he listed the previous patriarchs of the sect, be turned over to K’un-ts’an. K’un-ts’an declined the responsibility, returning the scroll and the sceptre to another of Tao-sheng’s disciples. The conflict between the predicament he found himself in and his natural disposition, that of a man who “doesn’t get involved in affairs, nor try to find reason in them,” was evidently too sharp to endure. Shortly after, he left on travels that would keep him away from Nanking and its entanglements for a year and a half.

Once more, he found refuge and spiritual solace in the mountains, this time at Huangshan. That great complex of peaks in southern Anhui province, which we have encountered in the previous chapter through the depictions of it by Anhui-school masters, was a stronghold of anti-Ch’ing sentiment in the post-conquest period, so that K’un-ts’an’s pilgrimage there might have had political overtones as well. He was accompanied during some part of the trip by Ch’eng Cheng-k’uei, whom he had come to know during his time at the Pao-en Temple. Besides climbing Huangshan he traveled for a time in the Wu-Yüeh (present Kiangsi-Chekiang) region, returning to Nanking in the eighth lunar month of 1660. He lived again at the Yu-ch’i Ssu on Mt. Tsu-t’ang, now not as a temple functionary but purely as a recluse, in a hut that he build outside the monastery. There he spent his remaining years, until his death in 1673, having little communication with the monks of the temple or with anyone else. Much of his time was spent meditating in a tiny stone chamber built into a wall, which can still be seen at Tsu-t’ang.[22] He continued to be in ill health, afflicted with rheumatism and stomach disorders as well as the skin disease. When he went into Nanking for medicine or treatments he stayed with Ch’eng Cheng-k’uei, his only close friend during this last period; Ch’eng also visited him in his hut from time to time. He scarcely traveled, although he did return to his home in Wu-ling once more.

Bleak as this life may seem to us, it had profound spiritual benefits for K’un-ts’an, in addition to the emotional release of having extricated himself from his worldly commitments. Most importantly for our concern, the few years following his return from Huangshan was by far his most productive period as a painter. Only a few extant or recorded works can be dated before 1660, although he had begun painting in the mid-1550s while at the Pao-en Temple. A large number, by contrast, including most of his finest, date between 1660 and 1663. After that, although he continues to produce high-level paintings from time to time, his output drops off, at first only in quantity but later in quality as well, as age, illness, and perhaps a kind of spiritual fatigue eroded his creative powers. What scarcely survives into the late period is that powerful tactile and spatial engagement with natural forms, that creation of complete sensory worlds, which appears for a time to have compensated through some kind of sublimation for K’un-ts’an’s disengagement from all but minimal human contacts. Simplistic as this formulation may sound, it appears to be borne out by the circumstances of his life, the character of his best paintings, and the content of his inscriptions.

If we try to imagine what the reclusive K’un-ts’an and his hut may have looked like, we can turn to an undated painting, a large album leaf, in the Shanghai Museum for his self-perception (Colorplt. ). K’un-ts’an’s inscription on it reads: “I have returned from Huangshan and am living peacefully at Yu-ch’i--for a person of the Tao who has left his home, there is no place that won’t serve. In my tattered robe I climb around the white-fogged mountains, loving the seclusion they offer. I have built a humble cottage here, and sit on a tree by a flowing stream. Although my eyes and ears are still [clogged with] the dust of the city, when I come here they become clear. This is Shih Tao-jen’s self-portrait.”

The best of K’un-ts’an’s paintings are intended to be read as self-representations in some sense; this one is only more explicitly so than others. The blunt, twisting brushstrokes create, on the paper surface, tactile forms that are not presented as elements of a style--nothing that corresponds to the Orthodox school’s engagement with some art-historical lineage in the past--but as real materials that furnished the artist’s physical and emotional life. The tree on which he sits can be grasped visually, in all its rude growth; the ripples on the water, the earthy further bank, the hut itself, are all made to exist, and the pleasure the artist took in his surroundings is felt in the way the figure is integrated visually with these. He turns inward, showing us only the barest facial features, while yet expressing, in posture, turned head, and slightly opened mouth, his absorption in the simple scene.

Although undated, the painting can be tentatively placed by style in the period immediately after K’un-ts’an’s return; the touches of red-brown color may indicate a dating in the autumn of that year. A landscape dated to the eighth month of 1660 (Pl. ) agrees at enough points to support that dating--for instance, the foreground pines that in both pictures stand in front of the houses in lower right, and the pale, wavering, thick-line drawing of ripples on the water. In his inscription K’un-ts’an tells of discussing painting with Ch’eng Cheng-k’uei. Every morning and evening he climbs the peaks and gazes into distance, in order to comprehend the true aspects of mountains as seen from afar. He quotes the common saying that unless one has read many books and walked many miles, what he sees isn’t worth talking about, and continues: “It is like the old Buddhist saying: ‘You have to give and receive personally [i.e. engage yourself with the world] if you are to unlock the secret of the rush mat [Ch’an meditation]’ I came back from the T’ien-tu Peak [the Heavenly Citadel at Huangshan] and have been painting the beauties of rivers and streams, the luxuriant shade of groves and trees--all of it scenery unlike any that the old masters ever depicted.”

What K’un-ts’an offers in this and other works of this period is a private version of the old theme of ideal involvement with nature as a source of spiritual strength and stability. His quotation of the Buddhist saying suggests that such involvement was for him a necessary grounding for “unlocking the secret of the rush mat,” or Ch’an enlightenment. As we will see, this sequence, first experiencing nature to the fullest and then practicing quiet meditation, supplies the underlying structure for some of his best inscriptions and paintings. Although the Huangshan peaks are mentioned in the incription and perhaps represented in the distance, the scenery depicted would appear to be the earthier, more richly vegetated terrain of the Nanking region. That is not to say that the picture is topographical--the precipitous and overhanging cliffs, for instance, are purely conventional--but it suggests that the familiar scenery of the artist’s everyday life can suffice as a subject, without much need for fantacizing, abstraction, or conformity to pre-existing stylistic dictates. It is as if the artist is laying out, in his compositional plan, a narrative of how his days pass, or how he would like them to. In the upper storey of a house in the foreground the reclusive occupant is seen with the friend; a crane in the yard, along with pine trees before and a pocket of fog behind the house, complete the image of a blessed habitation. From this the man can venture out, by water (the boatman at left) or by land (the path with a railing along the opposite bank), in either case leaving behind his protected place. From a rest-shed in middleground steps lead up to a cluster of buildings overlooking a waterfall.

A large landscape painted only two months later, in the tenth month of 1660, presents a similar program, one that reflects more intimately K’un-ts’an’s own situation. It must be the artist who leans on a desk looking out from an open shed in lower left. From here he can walk back through the trees and up to a waterfall, or, following paths more clearly indicated, through a rustic gate at right and upward to a complex of temple buildings, and thence, perhaps after resting, further up and through a gateway in the pass to more remote, unrepresented places.

References in the text

[17]Biographical studies of K’un-ts’an include:

- Cheng Hsi-chen, Hung-jen, K’un-ts’an (Chung-kuo hua-chia ts’ung-shu series), Shanghai, 1979.

- Yüan T’ung, “Shih Shih-ch’i shih-chi hui-pien,” Chung-ho yüeh-k’an, III, 3, 1941, pp. 3-16.

- Ho Chuan-hsing, “Shih-ch’i hsing-shih k’ao,” Shih yüan 12, November 1982, pp. 127-183.

- Yang Hsin, “Wei-yin ch’üan-shih tsai kao-yü: lüeh lun Shih-ch’i ti i-shu,” Chung-kuo hua, 1983 no. 2, pp. 4 2-46. Also “Shih-ch’i tsu-nien ts’ai k’ao,” Ku-kung po-wu-yüan yüan-k’an, 1988 no. 3, pp. 36-4 1, 55.

- Lu Ming, “Shih-ch’i ti hui-hua i-shu,” Chung-kuo hua, 1983 no. 2, pp. 47-49.

- Chang Chen-ti (Joseph Chang), “K’un-ts’an ti Huang-shan chih lü,” paper for symposium on Anhui school painting, Hefei, 1986.

Also helpful are the entry on K’un-ts’an by Howard Rogers in Ming-Qing Painting, pp. 163-64, and Hongnam Kim’s notes to her translation of the section on him in Chou Liang-kung’s Tu-hua lu, Kim, II, 81-84. A doctoral dissertation by Chang Chen-ti is underway.

- Mao Hsin-lung, “K’un-ts’an sheng-p’ing lüeh-k’ao,” Duoyun 15, October 1987, pp. 120-125.

[18]Translation by Hongnam Kim, Chou Liang-kung, I, 82.

[19]Translation by Howard Rogers, Ming and Qing Painting, pp. 163-64.

[20]Lu Ming, op. cit., p. 47.

[21]Translation from Siren, Chinese Painting, V, 143.

[22]I was taken there in October of 1986 by Professors Lin Shuzhong and Fang Jun of the Nanking Academy of Arts, to whom I wish to express again my gratitude. A flat stone set in the floor has a very soft-edged engraving of the character fo, “Buddha,” said to have been produced by someone of infinite patience rubbing the stone with his finger.

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