May 8 1983: Preening Oneself


Huang Yao had a weekly column called Moyuan Suibi in the Nanyang Siang Pao, a newspaper in Malaysia. 




In one of the issues of "Yishujia or Artist" from Taiwan last year, there was an article about Gao Long Sheng, in which Ye Qian Yu and I were mentioned. We have been friends since the 1930s. Now we live in totally different places and have   lost contact for a long time. I have since turned into "Nanyang Uncle" myself; even an old friend in Nanyang whom I knew in Shanghai has passed on. Truly, the shifts and changes in life leave me feeling quite sad. Ever since I became old, I have experienced how it feels to "cry without tears". As "Yishujia" mentioned that they did not know my whereabouts, Yao Tuo was prompted to write an article about me. Later, my friends Zhang Shu Yan and Luo San Min also nagged at me to write for "Yishujia". That was last year and I have postponed it for a year now. Today, after resting in the suburbs and spending some time playing with my two grandchildren, I feel so much more rejuvenated. So I thought, why not write something?

Why not start with the famous Bada Shanren? He was a very talented painter with quite a unique character. One's success does not depend on where one was born, and his experiences led him to having a style of such "creative innovation". Qi Baishi is one of those in recent times who has thoroughly researched on his Chinese-ink painting techniques. However, Qi Baishi later modified his style and began using intense colors. His bold use of bright red, bright yellow, bright green... in the painting of flowers, chrysanthemum, leaves, and reeds became a signature of his art. That is what is so extraordinary about Qi Baishi, and is something worth learning. He had a good foundation in writing Large Seal Script, and his arm has the strength of a wood carver. It wasn't just that he had the strength for carving seals, but the strength of his brush strokes were powerful, which helped in brilliantly creating a beautiful effect when the ink and water sipped into the rice paper. That is why his paintings of fish, prawns, crabs and chickens are so life-like. They come alive under his brush. His subjects are not just rendered realistically, but he has also given them life. This is the result of his “keen observation” and his brilliant use of ink and colors. He used to teach and he would tell his students to bring two carts full of rice paper, and he wasn't trying to be funny.

The foundation of Bada Shanren's painting skills was based on his calligraphy skills. His "Zhong Yao” Small Regular Script was beautiful and featured powerful strokes. Some say that he was "mute", but I say his poems speak louder than those “popular songs”. If you don't believe me, let us listen to his poem, "Peacock, flower-painted screens, bamboo on the rain screen / the leaves at the tip of a bamboo swaying strong as the ink gives it life / see the three ears to know how great one is / coincidentally it's 10pm on a festive day, time to report". The brilliance is in the " three ears" and "10pm". "Three ears" is not literally three ears, but refers instead to the three feathers at the back of an official's hat, where they used to tie braids that were often mocked by the Westerners. These “feathers” represented an official's ranking. Generals had three stars; Lieutenant Generals had two stars, and Major Generals had one star. In those days, Generals with three feathers were particularly highly regarded. However, it wasn't easy being an official during the Qing Dynasty, as one had to report to court at 10pm. Bada Shanren painted a pair of peacocks with their bulging eyes and three feathers sticking out from behind their buttocks, looking like slaves. They squatted on an unstable rock, and the mountain above them looked like it was going to come crashing down anytime. So although a "prosperity flower" bloomed in between the cracks of the rock, the moment the mountain collapsed, it would all be over for the peacock.

However, many accused his calligraphy work of being hugely influenced by Yan Zhen Qing, Wang Yi Zi and his son, yet I think his influences came from Dong Qi Chang. You can see from his landscape paintings the shadows of Dong Qi Chang, although he further simplified it. You can find this argument in other books, so pardon me for not discussing this topic more.

He had been a monk and a Taoist priest, but the strangest thing was that he considered himself a “donkey". He even made a seal that said "donkey". Would you dare to use it? Would you have the guts to carve a "dog" seal, a "cat" seal? On one hand, he considered himself a "donkey", but on the other hand he considered himself a "deity", and made himself a seal that said "Enlightenment Is Attainable". He could climb mountains with ease even when he was 70 or 80 years old. Monk Shi Tao once wrote to him requesting for a painting. In the letter he said, "I heard that Sir at 74 or 75-year-old can swiftly reach the summit of a mountain. He must be a deity. Ji (Shi Tao called himself "Dao Ji") is nearing 60, everything is unlike before." That was in year 1688, also known as Kang Xi 27 years. As you can see from this story, Bada Shanren was good enough to be a deity, so wouldn't it be brilliant to nickname him Donkey Deity?

Bada Shanren was originally a prince born in the time of Ming Dynasty's song and dance era (like Monk Shi Tao), and was a descendant of Zhu Yuan Zhang. It's a pity that he was not keen in the glory of his status, but chose to pick up a “bald writing brush”. He made a few paintings and went on to become a monk. Everyone jeered at him and called him "bald donkey". Bada had no avenue to vent his anger, so he came up with a creative signature, where he separated the words “Bada Shanren” into “Ku Zhi” (“crying”) and “Xiao Zhi” (“laughing”), thereby expressing his state of not knowing whether to laugh or to cry. When a man reaches a state of not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, naturally he gives up on talking altogether and chooses to be mute.

His paintings, with influences from Zhong Yao, Ouyang Xun and Yan Zhen Qing, are intense yet carefree. If you want to paint well, you'll have to start with calligraphy. In book shops you can find many stone inscription rubbings by famous artists. As a start you can imitate or research on a certain artist. By practicing everyday you will be able to naturally pick up the style. Eventually you should innovate and create your own style by combining what you have learnt from the different schools. This is when you have acquired the skill to paint anything you want, regardless of whether it's seal script, regular script, cursive script or highly cursive script. The Japanese worked really hard at honing their skills, changing "Shu Fa" (“calligraphy”) to "Shodo". Every street had a Shodo Club. Everyone – man or woman – was practicing writing “Chinese characters”, while people from the place where “Chinese chracters” originated have oversimplified the  characters so much that its beauty from its picture word root is now forgotten. As time goes by, there may come a day when we can no longer recover what we used to have, and then we would have lost the beauty of “characters” forever, and it will be too late to cry and regret.

Attached to this article is an old painting I made twenty years ago in Kedah, north of Malaysia, titled "Preening Oneself". It was a gift to Mr Zheng Shi Fang. I incorporated the brush style of “Bada” and felt quite “pleased with myself", "forgetting for a moment that I was getting on with age". Wouldn't this be one way of consoling myself? Haha!

Summer of 1983, Malaysia


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