Learning to “read” classical Chinese paintings

Posted on: January 25, 2018, by :


Learning Chinese humanities from the best

This piece was extracted from one of the final assignments of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), China Humanities: The Individuals in Chinese Culture from Harvard University that I have just completed successfully. I have gained immensely from this MOOCs, learning from top professors from Harvard (and free too!). One of the intriguing new knowledge that I picked up is from Professor Eugene Wang who introduced to us “how to read” classical Chinese paintings.

In this essay (which this post is derived from), I tried to interpret the painting named “Fish and Fish Hawk” by Zhu Da (朱耷) (1626-1705). I was elated when my essay was one of the work picked up by Professor Peter Bol, the lead academic for this MOOC for the final discussion of this course!

Dr. Chow YN's work was picked up by Prof Bol in his final discussion.

The interpretation of Zhu Da’s “Fish and Fish Hawk

I have chosen Zhu Da’s “Fish and Fish Hawk” or more simplicisticaly translated as “Bird and Fish” painting. A image of the painting (shown below) can be found here: http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/painting-zhu-da-fish-hawk.php

What’s depicted

At first glance, this painting seems to show a hawk, which is interpreted as fish hawk by some, as a predator eyeing a fish swimming away from it (to the bottom left of the painting). The fish, with its eyes focussing upwards, seems to be aware of the imminent danger but it is pretending not to notice the fish hawk and thus making its escape as unnoticeable as possible but to no avail. The sense of helplessness on the part of the fish is evident. The fish hawk in fact has spotted the fish long ago and could pounce on the fish as and when it wishes! The predatory hawk is perching on a tree devoid of leaves, reminiscent of the “Cold Grove” style which in this case showing that the season could be late autumn or early winter. Thus it seems odd that, firstly a fish would swim to the surface in cold weather and secondly, it is also unusual to see fish hawk seeking prey, not in warmer weather but in the cold, desolate landscape.

How I “read” this painting

I think “Fish and Fish Hawk” is an important Zhu Da’s work as its hidden meaning could depict the life story. Zhu Da, as a direct descendant of the royal family of the former Ming dynasty living under the shadow of the Qing rulers has to tread very carefully in order to survive and not present himself as a threat to the new rulers. In fact, his bouts of seemingly insanity and his seeking of a monastic life for 40 years are his ploys to present himself as a harmless, eccentric or even mad and thus “worthless” descendant of the former royal family and hence he poses no threat to the Qing rulers at all. All along, like the fish in his painting, Zhu Da knows that he will be under the watchful eyes of the officials of the Qing rules as depicted by the fish hawk. After around 40 years of such “play-acting”, and perceiving that the Qing government’s lack of interest in him, Zhu Da only dared to leave the monastery to live a life as an artist. Zhu Da’s use of 八大山人(ba da shan ren) or “mountain man of the eight greats” gives two interpretations, both serve to cement his personality and political predicament. Firstly, as pointed out by some commentators, if one views Zhu Da’s signature of 八大山人 written vertically on his paintings, the words laughter (笑) and cry (哭) can easily be depicted. Secondly, by using the term 山人 (mountain man), he is telling those monitoring his actions that he is resigned to a rustic life, a life in the mountain, literally speaking and thus poses no threat to the Qing government at all!

In this painting, it is obvious that the predator, fish hawk represents the power-that-be or one of its functionaries which is watching over the scene tightly, even during the winter months!. I think Zhu Da depicts himself as the prey, the fish which is trying its best to get away quietly from the predator, but fully aware of the fact that he is not out of danger as yet. The fish hawk could strike at any moment!

As traditionally, fish hawks have been used by fishermen to help them to catch fishes. The presence of the fish hawk could also depict that the predator is under the “employ” of the Qing ruler, it is han jian (汉奸), a traitor among the people!

Relevance to present day

This painting is relevant to life today as many people, inclusive of people living in seemingly democratic nations are feeling just like Zhu Da did… where “big brother” is always watching. In our case, the surveillance for perceived threat to the power that be is extended now to social media realm and virtually all electronic communication too. We also feel like the fish, wanting to escape but not able to do so quick enough, knowing that if we make the wrong move we could be in serious trouble! The desolate scene depicted by Zhu Da also signifies the economic hardship felt by the poor denizen of the world, with a high unemployment or underemployment, income that has not really rise up for ages and real inflation eating daily into the living standard of the people.

Final thoughts

Obviously I am not an expert in classical Chinese painting but merely a very junior learner. I shared my work with these intentions:

  • Promoting lifelong learning via MOOCs.
  • Informing my readers about  this free (well auditing is still free) learning from a top university & top professors.
  • Encourage more people, especially those who are Chinese Malaysians who, like me, do not have a good grasp of the Chinese language, culture or humanities to take up this MOOC in the next offering (in fact this MOOC is open till Mar 2018 and you can still enroll and complete it if you work hard, like me!).

After this MOOC, I will now look at Chinese paintings, or more like “reading” these with a different mindset!

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