There have been several significant bursts of creativity in the history of Chinese painting, taking the art from a primarily mimetic function (the depiction of notable figures from legend and history in murals) to an embodiment of the artist’s communion with the spirit of his subject (whether that be a sprig of bamboo or a vast landscape), and then to an exploration of ink play or impossible landscape formations and distorted human subjects as an expression of the artist’s personality or the tensions of the age. Those who made this art and those for whom it was made formed a community of elite artists, patrons, connoisseurs, collectors, and theorists (and in China, of course, all these might turn up wearing a single robe). For them an individual painting was the site of heightened awareness, of shared understandings on matters of brushwork and technique, of allusion to past masters and to literary antecedents, and of tradition and its transformations. Increasingly over time, colophons on the paintings or their mountings offered reflections on the painting as an object, its content as a subject for new creation (a poem, perhaps), or the artist as a friend. This depth and multiplicity of meaning constitutes one requirement for high art.

Two of the significant waves of creativity in the evolution of Chinese painting were prompted in part by the destruction and disruption that accompanied foreign conquest. The first wave came with the Yuan conquest of China, which began in 1235 as retaliation for Southern Song attempts to take from their Mongol allies northern cities that the Chinese had lost to the Jurchen a century earlier and ended in 1279 with the perishing of the refugee court after a maritime battle in Guangdong; the second wave came with the Qing conquest, which began with the occupation of Beijing in 1644 and became, like the Yuan conquest, a long and bloody process continuing over four decades. In both cases, there was a significant number of elite men who were already avoiding national politics under the old regime for various reasons; under the conquest dynasties, they were joined by large numbers of ‘left-behind subjects’ (yimin 遺民) who refused to serve the new rulers, even though they were qualified for office. Many of these men were thus free from the necessity of preparing for the examinations and from the onerous bureaucratic duties that awaited those who were successful in the examinations, and they poured ther talents into painting and calligraphy, the dislocations they had often suffered seeming to give new impetus to their creative impulses.

Decades of violence and economic and social changes also preceded the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China. By this time, the overlap between artists and the governing elite was already very small, but as before there were talented individuals who stayed away from political life and devoted their time to creativity. To gain the freedom to do so, however, they had to become a different kind of yimin: the yimin 移民 (‘relocated people’) who left mainland China completely.

These artists recognized their kinship with their forebears of the Sung – Yuan transition and the Ming – Qing transition.1 Their concerns were the same: to continue the painting tradition with vitality and freedom of expression and to act as guardians of their culture, which they perceived as threatened by political forces.

Not only are the reasons for this third creative surge essentially the same as for the earlier two, but the results have proven similarly exciting, bringing new ideas, techniques, and vitality to the tradition. Some of the key participants in this third surge are well known; others await due recognition. The most famous émigré artist is Zhang Daqian. Ironically, of all of the artists who left China to work elsewhere (in his case, Brazil, Taiwan, and California), Zhang, while absent from China physically, probably best embodies the ancient tradition as a continuum. His hard work and genius kept the tradition vital through the twentieth century, but with innovations based on fresh subject matter (Buddhist subjects, for instance, given new treatment inspired by visits to the Mogao and Yunlin caves near Dunhuang) and his response to failing eyesight in the late 1950s. His reduced vision led to his splashed colour paintings, which were coincidentally part of a movement, exemplified by Chen Chi-kwan, Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang), and Liu Kuosung, that explored new texturing and compositional methods. Zhang adapted the ancient mode of ink-play to suit his failing eyesight; the others set out to find new means of creating traditional Chinese paintings.

While Zhang provided new creative input entirely within the tradition, others are more difficult to classify. It may seem simpler than the situation with expatriate writers, where language enters the picture. If a Chinese-born writer living in Germany writes in German, how much ‘Chinese’ content (however defined) does there have to be for the writer to be a ‘Chinese writer’? If that same writer (or perhaps her grandchild) writes in Chinese, how much non-Chinese content is allowable before the writer ceases to be a Chinese writer and becomes a writer who just happens to write in the Chinese language? But painters work also in language—they have a vocabulary of trees, rocks, and figures as they were seen by centuries of artists before them, and their grammar is the sense of space, composition, and light that was imparted to them when they learned their craft. This is why an artist like the late Zao Wouki (Zhao Wuji) can be seen either as a Chinese artist or as an ethnic Chinese bringing some Chinese sensibility to the modern western art movement, depending on how much weight one wants to give the various modes in which he worked.

The artists we shall talk about below are an important group that probably lies somewhere between Zhang Daqian and Zao Wouki. Some can be said to have revitalized the tradition by expanding the mainstream from within; others enriched it from without by incorporating western trends and inventing new techniques to augment tradition. What they have in common is that they represent evolutionary developments of the Chinese painting tradition.

The entire development of Chinese painting from its origins to the present is best viewed as evolutionary, not sporadically revolutionary. A revolution is required when a perceived tyranny needs overthrowing – revolt is against something. In the West, the modern revolution in the arts was against the discourses of order and reason that served, in various times, the interests of the Church, the monarchy, or the bourgeoisie. Paintings depicted saints, princes, allegorical figures, and possessions (possessions in the form of a still life, perhaps, or in the furnishings surrounding a girl reading a letter by the light of a window, but also in the form of calm country scenes of order and prosperity). A rather special development in Western art (one that would have a profound influence on Chinese aesthetics and politics from the late nineteenth century through the Cultural Revolution and beyond) was the aesthetic of the sublime, the pleasure one finds in the powerful feelings that arise when the individual is swept up in the sublime grandeur of a powerful landscape—or of collective action.2 For reasons that deserve much more analysis than we have room for here, all of these movements and periods in Western art involved realism of one sort or another, realism based in varying degrees on an intellectual analysis of how things appear to the eye: examples that spring to mind include Renaissance perspective, Vermeer’s uncanny sense of light, and the Impressionists. Perhaps realism was essential to a culture in which a systematic and totalizing knowledge of the world was sought after, a knowledge that became important to Europeans after Christianity had conquered the continent. (Not all totalizing systems require realism; Islam banned the depiction of human or divine beings and found other ways of enforcing the uniformity of viewpoint that monotheism implies.)

In the West, a major corner was turned when impressionism as a form of realism was replaced by abstract expressionism. We can exaggerate the change by imagining Leonardo da Vinci putting four broad, black strokes on a canvas: his contemporaries would have assumed he was cleaning his brushes and waited for the real painting to begin. Yes, when viewing his sketches, at some level they would have felt the suppleness of his pencilled lines and the subtlety of his shading, but perhaps not to the degree that we do. Leonardo’s job was to paint something that existed ‘out there’ in the world, where light falls on objects and shows us what they look like, and mere lines or colours could never be the subject of a painting. Colours and brushstrokes begin to rise to prominence with the impressionists, but one wonders whether the final break with realism would not have occurred without the influence of Japanese prints and other East Asian art in Europe at about the same time. When Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell really did put large black blobs on a canvas in the twentieth century, however, it was recognized as high art. The revolution had succeeded. No longer would the subtle tyranny of reality, the supremacy of objectified subject matter, enforce the subjugation of the other languages of visual art, line, form, colour, and texture. These were now the primary focus of the work, and the subject matter named in the title, if it referred to anything outside the painting, was more a pretext for the deployment of these languages than an object that was supposed to be depicted in ‘objective’ detail.

In China no revolution against realism was necessary. Early art was religious and political, to be sure, and temple art and portraits of rulers and model figures continued to be produced for all religions and through all dynasties, but the main current of Chinese theories of art saw painting as a trace of the artist’s engagement with the Dao (Way) or the li of the universe. Li has been rendered as ‘principle’ or ‘reason’, and its meanings can overlap with some meanings of those English words, but students of Chinese philosophy nowadays prefer ‘coherence’ or ‘pattern’ as a translation. Li is something that is inherent in the world, not standing apart from it (although the division between spirit and matter was not entirely alien to Chinese tradition, as is often thought); on the macro level, it can be a sort of universal coherence, and on the micro level it can be the pattern that makes one object what it is. It is not discoverable by reason and intellect. One of the major currents of later Confucianism did advocate intimate engagement with things (wu, the objective world) as the means to discover li, and this could provide the basis (or justification) for a scientific method, but it was not inherently a matter of intellect. The other major current of Confucianism called for looking within one’s own mind to find li. Either way, the immensely important work of knowing li was not motivated by the desire to create a perfect system of knowledge; the goal was to be able to act in accordance with the way things really are.

Despite the importance of Confucianism as the ideology of the ruling class and the family system (and as the basis for moral instruction of the populace, which emperors in the late imperial period came to see as one of their duties), and despite the fact that most of the debates over the nature of the mind and its relation with the world took place within a Confucian system of thought (after Buddhism had put these issues on the table), there was never a national religion that sought to define truth and justify the existing social system, as one saw in European countries. Art, therefore, had ample space to exist as an expression of personality through the languages of ink and brush. One was expected to master the tradition (usually indirectly, through one’s teachers, since the great works of Chinese painting whose images are so familiar to us today would have been available to only a very few), but once the tradition had been internalised, the great artist went on to establish his own style. Since his goals were to embody li and to bring freshness and energy to traditional techniques, he naturally achieved the freedom from analytical intellect that the Western artist had to gain through revolution.

With the establishment of the PRC in 1949, it was China’s turn to experience the phenomenon of a national ideology that conveyed an objective truth to which artists were expected to conform. Intellectual analysis of real social conditions could lead only to the conclusions that Marx and Mao had reached, and it was the work of the artist to immerse himself or herself in this analysis and then use artistic means to reflect the people’s experiences and teach them the truths that Communism offered. Again, this was realism—Socialist Realism in this case. The theory and techniques of Socialist Realism were derived from Soviet art, but traditional colours, ink, and brushes were used to create a parallel style derived from native Chinese techniques. Superficially Chinese landscapes that conveyed the sublime grandeur of the Motherland were part of a larger program of submission to overwhelming power that had profound and ultimately destructive psychological dimensions. With the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1975, the struggle against this totalising realism made the fantastic, the grotesque, and the schizophrenic dominant in the arts. The signs of desublimation are even more violent than the earlier revolution in Western art that we talked about above, perhaps because the interplay between the aesthetic and the political had even deeper psycho-somatic dimensions in the Mao era.

The difficulty entailed in the revolt against realism, whether in the West or in post-Mao China, is that one is condemned to search for ‘the new’ forever. This dazzling era of discovery is not sustainable, however; it is only a consequence of revolution in art in a culture that had unwittingly tyrannised art. To demand the mind-shattering discoveries of the revolution after it is long over is to foster banality. Once the revolution is successful, the task becomes a gentler one of dwelling in and farming the new realms of perception and expression. This reverts to an evolutionary process, relying less on discovering something fundamentally new reflected on the surface of art but by developing individual creativity in already-discovered modes. The new methods of creating form, line, and texture used by Wang Jiqian, Liu Kuo-sung, and Chen Chikwan were exciting, creative, and influential, but hardly revolutionary, any more than was Jin Nong’s eighteenth-century novel concept of cutting the tip off his brush to achieve a broad, oblique stroke for calligraphy.

In China, the key to painting’s evolution was individual creativity; the only mild constraint it suffered was occasional stultifying orthodoxy resulting from lesser minds awed by the influence of the past. The perceived need in the past century to ‘re-invent’, ‘rescue’, or ‘modernize’ Chinese painting is largely illusory, although it must be admitted that calls for such drastic improvements did encourage creativity in many cases. In fact, the art form was already ‘modern’ in its freedom from totalising realism and, despite the wailings of theorists, this has never ceased, leaving us with many significant creative evolutions.

The early autonomy of the arts allowed for the rapid exploration of the inner languages of visual art. The untrained eye looks upon traditional Chinese painting and tends to see boringly similar, mostly monochrome landscapes with the same subjects over and over. And when we speak of the evolution of Chinese painting before Mao as opposed to the revolutionary opposition that created a rift in the Western tradition, we risk reinforcing the impression that Chinese painting at any given time was more or less homogeneous and changed only over long stretches of time. That, of course, is untrue. Different schools of painting coexisted; literati and academy painters painted for different audiences and used very different techniques; contemporary artists such as Zhao Mengfu, Ni Zan, Huang Gongwang, and Wang Meng, the Four Masters of the Yuan, to revisit the earlier period of creativity mentioned above, are very unlike each other in subject matter and style, and this is very apparent to those who can read the languages of line, form, colour, and texture underlying these landscapes. When one is sensitive to the pulsing power of formal abstraction, line, and other inner languages, the real art work is suddenly visible and the exciting differences between these paintings are revealed. Then we can see in them the equivalents of the modern Western revolution, but stripped of purely Western tendency to prefer either subject matter or abstraction. In a centuries-old Chinese masterpiece we see elements of formal abstraction, abstract expressionism, and even a certain kind of realism (otherwise, poetic colophons in which a poet pretended to forget he was looking at a painting rather than a real scene would have been nonsensical), but in an integrated manner – and all the more exciting because of it.

Another important shift in understanding both modern Western art and the Chinese tradition is to overcome the lingering intellectual prejudice of the art object as the end product. Prior to the modern revolution, there was a tendency in the West to assume when dealing with visual art (and, with small adjustments, the same may be applied to all other arts) that the process was one of the artist reaching on behalf of the audience into the visionary realm, then, through acquired technique, translating this vision into the coded languages of the art object. The physical object, the work of art, was seen as the end product of the artistic process. The audience was generally seen as a separate observer, delving back through the encoded languages in order to glimpse a little of the artist’s vision.

The Chinese never truly subscribed to that theory, and nor can we today in approaching modern Western art at any depth. The crucial change required is that, instead of being separate from the process of art and decoding the object, the qualified viewer becomes an integral part of the process, moving it forwards. The audience must develop the tools, often as hard to come by as artistic techniques at the highest level, by which it can read the painting fluently and by doing so reach for itself into the visionary realm. The entire process (vision → artist’s technique → art object → audience’s technique → vision) is the end product, and the ultimate goal is the evolution of consciousness towards enlightenment, however one cares to define enlightenment (and there is a crucial difference between how the intellectually biased mind and the trans-intellectually biased mind see it, although that does not affect the theory).3

Significantly, this expansion allows us to easily deal with many of the conundrums of recent artistic modes, such as silent music, wrapped bridges, extended formats with no fixed perspective, etc. These can be related to the handscroll format that evolved in Chinese pictorial art at least fifteen hundred years ago: because it requires the viewer to act upon the painting physically, the handscroll is the most efficient in breaking down the distinction between the artist and the audience and encouraging the flow of communication that is art’s highest calling. Nor is it any surprise to find the Chinese preference for materials such as sophisticated papers, ink, and extraordinarily flexible brushes, which are all designed to dance with the artist, rather than be imposed upon by him. It also explains why collectors in China considered it perfectly normal to add to existing paintings by inscribing them, adding colophons on the mounting around them or directly on the painting itself. The painting was seen as only part of an on-going process, not a finished and sacrosanct art object.

We need not here go into the confusion created by the Chinese themselves being so in awe of the modern western revolution in the arts that for the better part of a century Chinese ‘reformers’ have questioned their own art and often rejected it. Blaming their own traditions for the weakness of China in the nineteenth century and seeing the dazzling results of the modern Western revolution, many artists rejected the extraordinary depths and sophistication of their own art in favour of looking westward to create a largely illusory ‘modern Chinese revolution’. This may have led to some intriguing and exciting art, but it was not revolutionary and is perhaps better understood as a generation of highly talented and extremely well-trained artists applying a Chinese sensibility in response to modern Western art. That is viable, and has thrown up its own masters and masterpieces, but it is confusing to consider it both Chinese and revolutionary in any real sense. Its fundamental problem as a ‘Chinese’ artistic mode at this point in time is revealed by the Turandot analogy. If you cast Turandot entirely with ethnic Chinese trained in Western opera, it would not transform it into Chinese opera, even though the story is set in Beijing and concerns people who are Chinese (as they existed in the Italian imagination).

Expatriate artists active outside of China after 1949 constitute a diverse group. Relatively free to move about, able to express themselves artistically as they wish, they are difficult to categorize. Some formed themselves into hui, ‘societies’ or ‘groups’: there was Liu Kuo-sung’s ‘Fifth Moon Group’ in Taiwan and the ‘In-Tao Art Association’ and ‘One Art Group’, both formed by students of the influential Lui Shoukwan, in Hong Kong, but it is telling that they did not call themselves ‘schools’. They are better seen as gatherings of creative minds with a common cause in revitalizing the tradition of Chinese painting than as artists following a similar visual path. Insofar as these societies are tied to one location for practical reasons, it might make sense to classify artists geographically, but neither location nor membership in one of these groups gives any useful information about an artist’s style.

The main concern of the expatriate artists was to revitalize painting. This was a task that required only a basic faith in the tradition itself as viable and a return to individual creativity. The broader horizons of Chinese artists living beyond the reach of Mao Zedong’s authoritarian and stifling approach to art allowed them a degree of freedom in finding a viable way forward. In some cases it was no more than a matter of artists finding new validity in the tradition, even in the orthodox side of it; in others, artists inspired by knowledge of what had been and still was going on in the West experimented with new modes of painting or new approaches to traditional subject matter.

The high-speed communications of the new world created a sense of urgency, prompting those engaged in the revitalization of the tradition to take a new look at the techniques of creating a painting. To one group, the traditional method of building up a painting with numerous textural brushstrokes (cunfa) seemed no longer necessary. The search for alternatives led to some individual breakthroughs. Chen Chikwan, in the 1950s, was the first to experiment in this way, but like so much in art, it was not necessarily a matter of him devising something new and others following: he and other artists simply responded to the same sense of urgency in their own manner. Chen at first began to use the full potential of Chinese papers by applying colour on one side, then painting on the other, where the markings were more subtle, less intentional. He also experimented with putting ink on the surface of water and dropping a sheet of paper onto it, so that it ‘printed’ random images onto the paper, a technique Liu Kuo-sung was later to master and make his own. These experiments culminated in Chen’s mastery of a signature texturing style by the mid-1950s. He was always very secretive about his methods and never let me see him paint.

Even when I had figured out how he was achieving certain results, he would rarely confirm them outright, but through close examination of my growing collection of his paintings, constant questioning, and experiments of my own I was able to guess at his signature method. He would lay colour down on a flat surface, perhaps a sheet of wood or paper. While it was still wet, he would lay a sheet of paper over it, as he had with ink on water, but with greater control. This would leave blocks of textured colour randomly marked but compositionally controllable. This could be done multiple times, building up a composition of random markings. He could also paint with a mixture of alum and water to create a resist, either linear or as random splashes. Once the mixture had dried, sizing the areas of paper it covered, new layers of colour would remain paler in those areas. Lines could be painted onto the flat surface and then printed to the paper, also. By blending these techniques, then painting defining detail from whichever side of the paper he preferred, he achieved not only a distinctive, entirely personal style, but found a much faster method of creating the same depth and fascination as traditional cunfa, a method that better suited the constraints of his busy career as a leading architect. His viewpoint as an architect, and as an artist living at a time when it was possible to fly above the landscape, also allowed him to creatively change traditional modes of perspective and introduce bird’s eye views, among which in his famous painting ‘Vertigo’ was one of a twisting landscape that had been inspired by being on a sharply banking DC3 coming in to land at a remote airport in the mountains. The painting begins at the bottom in a vertical hanging scroll format and twists to become a horizontal handscroll format at the top.4

Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang) found a different approach to the same idea with his late-1960s experiments, mastered by the early 1970s and used regularly thereafter, of using crumpled paper dipped in black ink to ‘print’ random linear but formally controlled texturing onto paper then work up the markings with the brush into powerful landscape images. He spent a decade or more gradually fulfilling his aim of completely integrating the random markings with his own highly sophisticated brushwork.

The third most significant force in this trend was Liu Kuo-sung, who began in the late 1950s to experiment with random texturing. He used crumpled-paper ink-printing techniques briefly as early as 1961, then developed his own cotton paper with coarse fibres on its surface (known as ‘Liu Kuo-sung paper’), enabling him to brush ink or colours over the paper at various stages in the painting then tear fibres off the surface to leave jagged, random markings. He then went on to experiment with ‘printing’ effects off the surface of water, taking the idea to a far more sophisticated level of inventiveness and control than Chen Chi-kwan had, since Chen became diverted from his early simple experiments in this direction by the extraordinary success of his own ‘printing’ methods and alum-resists. Liu Kuo-sung gained astonishing control of the process, introducing colours, patterning of the images to be picked up by the paper, and the use of oil to leave white or paler areas. Liu continues to experiment with variations on these methods, although his complete mastery of them has been evident for decades.

This movement included other artists who played less seminal roles but explored many of the possibilities of these printing and texturing techniques. Fang Zhaolin had an old, rather rough-piled carpet that she would place beneath the xuan paper, adding an element of chance and texture to her brushwork. Lui Shoukwan would splatter paper with water or pale colour before applying ink or stronger colours, so that the first wetting also sized the paper in parts, making the fresh layers paler: see his sophisticated ‘Wet-Zen’ serious of paintings from late in his career. Lui’s involvement was probably more a matter of developing ancient ink-play methods than responding to contemporary attempts to speed and enliven the process of texturing, but the effects were similar, and they inspired similar creativity. Tseng Yu Ho (Betty Ecke) is another innovative artist who, having mastered brushwork modes as a painter and calligrapher in China, moved to the United States to create entirely new methods, including what she called her duohua (gathered painting) technique of adding layers of paper, thin sheets of metallic foil, and coarse threads of cotton paper as she painted. She also abstracted landscape elements in Chinese traditional painting to a new extreme without losing their importance or meaning.

All of these approaches, once established, soon entered the range of the possible in Chinese art, and a second generation of younger artists, many of them students of either Liu Kuo-sung or Lui Shoukwan – two of the most important and influential, not to mention generous teachers among expatriate painters – made use of them.

It is misleading to describe the expatriate artistic scene as being a return to creativity, since it was a continuation of an unbroken line of creativity in Chinese art, but the extraordinary circumstances that took the artists outside of China led to a burst of creativity that was every bit as rich and complex as the flow of innovation in painting that had come with the Yuan and Ming conquests. Wallasse Ting, Luis Chan, Chu Hingwah, Fang Zhaolin, Cheng Weikwok, Irene Zhou, Wucius Wong, Kwok Honsum, Mai Junyao, Chen Wenxi, and others contributed to broadening the range of subject matter, styles, and use of colour in the same way as Chen, Wang, and Liu expanded the possible range of techniques.

I recall being intrigued by Cheng Weikwok when I first met him, began to collect his works, and enquired into his methods. The process was meditational to him, and each painting a timeless journey, often over an extended period of time, as he patiently built up his images with a myriad tiny, thin brush strokes, creating an extraordinary depth of texture and colour. Then he would send the ‘finished’ product off to his mounter, where much of the depth of pigment would randomly pale or partly wash away, since he used Western watercolours, which are not permanent in the way that Chinese pigments are and are compromised by the wet-mounting process. When he got them back he would start all over again and rework the surface with other layers of minute brush strokes to rebuild the intensity of colour his works so often rely upon. One does not remount a Cheng Weikwok in the traditional manner!

Fang Zhaolin was a phenomenon in contributing at almost every level. With her constant and devoted study and practise of various calligraphic styles, and her consequent mastery of traditional brushwork in her art, she is best viewed as a major creative artist in the traditional manner, but she also used new texturing techniques and excelled at reducing her subject matter to its essentials. She has been called the Grandma Moses of Chinese painting because of the apparent naivety of her figure paintings, architectural and landscape details, but she is quite the opposite. Grandma Moses painted that way because she was truly naïve and untrained, so she knew no other way to depict what she saw around her other than through childish perception and expression. Fang Zhaolin, on the other hand, achieved pictorially what the great calligraphers achieve in maturity by mastering all the necessary skills and then gradually paring them back to the essence. Fang studied under Zhao Shaoang, the Lingnan master, and Zhang Daqian, and one only has to look at some of her paintings in the Lingnan style to see her extraordinary drawing skills, but in her mature works, she re-acquired a highly sophisticated naivety, the naivety of the Daoist sage, not the unknowing naivety of Grandma Moses or a child.

Another extraordinary achievement among the group of expatriate artists was by Yu Cheng-yao, a retired army general who took up painting only in his later years, after moving to Taiwan. Untrained in brushwork techniques, he achieved what would have been impossible under the orthodox tradition: he became recognized as a major artist creating masterpieces despite an absence of ‘good’ brushwork.

Also born in China and working in Taiwan is one of the most serious self-styled ‘modernizers’ of the ancient tradition, Ho Huai-shuo. Ho is a consummate artist in the brushwork tradition with mastery of calligraphy to match his paintings, but he is also a theorist and art-historian; among all the expatriate artists, he seems to take his role as guardian of the culture the most seriously. He has set about correcting what he perceives as the lingering problems of Chinese painting coming into the present, adjusting the tradition to suit a modern world with the calm indifference of utter certainty in his task. Ho married one of the leading calligraphers of the modern era, Tong Yang-tz’u, who has also set about bringing the tradition of calligraphy into the modern world with great success. Calligraphy, of course, has been linked to painting for more than a thousand years, and several of the most creative painters among the expatriate artists were also masters of calligraphy, including Fang Zhaolin, but there are others, such as Fung Mingchip in Hong Kong, who specialised in this field and is one of the most inventive modern calligraphers active today, constantly pushing back calligraphic frontiers.

Many others stayed closer to the tradition and simply responded by developing their own style. Several younger artists took up the legacy of the Lingnan school from the masters Chao Shaoang and Yang Shenshum and continued in that tradition, adding their own distinctive quality, such as Koo Mei and Ho Pak-lee; others followed the tradition of Wu Changshuo and Qi Baishi: these would include Guo Dawei (David Kwok) in Singapore and the finest later artist in the genre, Shen Yao-ch’u in Taipei. Jao Tsung-yi, Pang Chap-ming, Jiang Zhaoshen, Harold Wong, Li Yihong, and Hong Hoi have all followed traditional modes, styles, or schools to create their own distinctive Chinese art and make major contributions to keeping the tradition alive, creative, and evolving.

It is finally, perhaps, worth making one more point about the artists of our own time, other than the obvious one that reaching a true consensus of their importance as a whole and their relative importance as individuals within a group requires time. They exist in our time and their personalities may impact upon our feelings about their art. No-one cares any more whether Titian, da Vinci, Dong Qichang, or Zhu Da ever drowned a kitten or cheated a friend. We judge only their art. But with artists who overlap our own time and with whom we have a relationship, personality may still resonate. In dealing with individual artists, it is perhaps wise to attempt to insert the buffer of an imaginary century while judging their art, if that is possible.

The Master of the Water Pine and Stone Retreat chatting around a stone table with the Retired Scholar of Les Pintades Retreat.

July 2013


1 See Edwards, Richard. ‘Chi Kwan Chen – A Decade in Retrospect’, Chen Chi Kwan Paintings 1940-1980, Taiwan: Art Book Co. 1981, p. 28.

Edwards wrote that Chen was ‘an individual living at a time in history which in Chinese traditional terms would be described as a period of dynastic change. His closest historical models become those Chinese artists who lived in the thirteenth, the fourteenth or the seventeenth centuries, when Sung was changing to Yuan, Yuan to Ming and Ming to Ching.

2 For a superb study of this subject, see Wang Ban, The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

3 These ideas on the theory of art, as related to Chinese handscrolls, are explored more fully in Hugh Moss, “Theories on Art” Orientations, March 2013 vol 22, no. 2

4 Moss, Hugh. The Experience of Art: Twentieth Century Chinese Painting from the Shuisongshi Shanfang Collection, Hong Kong: Umbrella, 1983, p. 164