Chinese Traditional Painting - Bada Shanren

oil painting

Bada Shanren's Strange Pictures

In the early days of the Qing Dynasty there was a famous painter named Zhu Da, but he was known as Bada Shanren because he signed most of his pictures with this name. A descendant of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Bada grew up in Nanchang, Jiangsu Province. Bada learned poetry and art when he was only a little boy.

His peaceful life ended when the Ming Dynasty was overthrown by the Manchu Northerners in 1644. The Qing army took over Nanchang the next year, forcing the nineteen-year-old Bada and his family to flee and hide in the mountains.

A series of misfortunes followed. Bada's father, wife, and son died. Under such heavy blows, at just twenty-three years of age, Bada changed his name and became a monk. He studied Dhyanna (Zen), the teachings of a Buddhist sect in ancient China asserting that enlightenment could be attained through meditation and self-contemplation rather than through the scriptures. In his thirties Bada became interested in Daoist teachings. He often went to Qingyunpu, a Daoist temple near Nanchang, to study Daoist scriptures. One day, in his mid-fifties, he heard that some of his poems had been used by an official to flatter the rulers of the Qing Dynasty. He went mad. He wandered through the streets of Nanchang, wailing and laughing alternately. When he was 62, he decided to return to a secular life and earned his living by painting and teaching. At this time he started to use the name Bada Shanren for many of his works. Although he was poor, he refused to paint for officials and rich people. He died in 1705 at the age of eighty.

Bada Shanren's paintings look strange to the public and even to many artists. The birds and fish in his pictures always hold their heads high. Their eyes were drawn big and even squarely to show the painter's feelings. His bitter experiences in those years of social turmoil and his hatred for the Qing rulers helped to shape his distinctive style. In his "Picture of Peacocks", two peacocks squat on a strangely-shaped and unsteady stone. They are very ugly and have strange, big eyes. Each has three tail plumes that resemble the symbols of rank worn on the hats of Qing officials. The poem written on the painting provides the viewer with some idea of the meaning of the picture. The plumes on the peacocks were used to ridicule Qing officials; the strangely shaped and unsteady stone symbolized how the Qing Dynasty was not built on a firm foundation and that it would eventually be overthrown. When Zheng Banqiao, a later painter, commented on Bada Shanren's works, he said Bada's paintings contained more brush strokes done with tears than with Chinese ink.

Bada's method of expression was based on his mastery of traditional Chinese painting techniques. However, he did not follow tradition blindly; he tested new trails and sought new ways of expression. He excelled at painting landscapes, flowers, and birds. What characterized his works was simple composition, brief and precise brush strokes, exaggeration, strange images, and the human expressions and attitudes displayed by his subjects. Bada Shanren's style exerted a great influence on later artists. The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou in the Qing Dynasty and many well-known modern artists such as Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, Wu Changshuo, and Li Kuchan are all followers of Bada Shanren's example who have succeeded in forming their own styles along the way.

Revised June 2, 2011