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Urban Hermit

Geremie R. Barmé


What need is there to be outside the city to really understand?
From a patch close at hand one can clearly have distant thoughts...

The eremitic tradition of China makes much of flight from raucous urban centers and the search for untrammelled byways and remote keeps where the cultivated could commune with the rivers and hills.  Unfettered by worldly cares other pursuits--poetry, calligraphy and painting--could temper the artistic soul and refine the spirit.

The image is a pleasant fiction that was often belied in practice, for many talented scholar-gentlemen found in the city the very kind of hideaway that would allow them to shepherd their artistic talents unhindered while not denying themselves the diversions of society.  The practice was called "reclusion in the city," or shi yin.(1)

Zhu Wei is a Beijing urban hermit.  He cultivates his lifestyle as a city recluse while pursuing his art; he also finds reclusion in artistic themes and motifs of traditional China far from the clamour of the contemporary, all the while accepting within his work the diversions of the life around him.  As an urban hermit the bustle of the marketplace, naoshi, is only as far away as his doorstep.

Being remote from the world is not a matter of physical distance, it is a state of mind.(2)  As the art historian Craig Clunas has noted when discussing the subject of "reclusion in the city," as the pursuit of urban escape became popular, even hackneyed in the 16th Century, writers would claim that "the place where one is mentally alive need not be remote..."(3)

"The place where the mind is concentrated," hui xin chu, is the artist's studio, the homeland of the creative spirit.  Zhu Wei's spartan workspace is located in an undistinguished apartment block in the northwest suburbs of the city.  It is his place of reclusion, a permanent residence benzhai, a space for repose as well as the flurry of activity that sees the artist produce a constant flow of works that record both the world in which he lives and limn a particular vision of a world beyond anything that can be lived.

Zhu Wei also occupies an uncomfortable position in Beijing.  An urban stylite (if one sees his tower block as a pillar of isolation) who does not disdain the company of his own rowdy friends, entrepreneurs and music-makers, he has but little intercourse with the alternative art world for which the city has become something of an international drawcard.  He draws in both similar and different ways.

His work is often the object of obloquy, characatured and dismissed as being too "cartoon-like" and insufficiently painterly.  Zhu supposedly creates works that are little more than manhua ("cartoons") that appeal to the foreign eye and have little to recommend them to those in the know at the cutting edge of Beijing.  His technique, style and themes are trenchantly traditional; he is backward and not sufficiently fashionable, shimao.  This last characterization is the most damning for a culture choked by neophilia.  It is especially easy for others to nullify the art of a painter who shies from dwelling in the uncomfortable embrace, the sodality, of Beijing art society.

In 1920s Shanghai, where it first appeared in the mainland media, the very expression "cartoon," manhua, was seen as being a Chinese neologism.(4)

Although the modern manhua can be identified as a loan-word from the Japanese manga, a term that had been current for some time, the expression actually has a venerable history in China.  One, if not the earliest reference to it appears in a Song Dynasty notebook by the famous storyteller and critic, Hong Mai (1123-1202), the Five Collections of Miscellaneous Notes from the Acquiescent Study (Rongzhai suibi).

In one of his essays Hong describes two birds found in the border region of Yingzhou and Mozhou (present day Baoding in Hebei Province).  The "Xintianyuan" (literally, "He who trusts in heaven's providence"), a type of stork, stands in the water all day long without moving, and waits for fish to swim between its legs.  The "Manhua"--a bird said to be akin to a wild duck-- on the other hand, fossicks around in the water, sticking its beak indiscriminately into rotting rushes and mud without a moment's respite.  "Nature has endowed them with such different characters," the author observes in wonderment.

Another noteworthy pre-modern use of man hua, this time in the sense of casual or impromptu painting, occurs in the writings of Jin Nong (Dongxin, 1687-1763), one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou.  Mr Dongxin's Inscriptions for Miscellaneous Paintings records the following inscription:

I live on the bank of the Zhe River.  During the Fifth Month seasonal fruits come from the mountains in a veritable flood.  The most exceptional are the plums of Xiang Lake, and a basket can be had for a few cash.  Their sweet juice tingles the teeth, and one cannot get enough of them.  In comparison, the locquats of Dongting Lake are hardly worth relishing.  The season has now arrived and I find myself thinking of the flavours of my old home.  I casually paint man hua some broken branches [of the plum] -- what difference between this and "gazing at plums to quench one's thirst"?

In the autumn of 1927, a group of eleven artists in Shanghai formed the "Manhua Society."  They rejected the various popular Westernized names available to describe their art, and fixed instead on the widely-used Japanese term manga.  Huang Dunqing, one of the founding members of the association, claimed that by setting up their group this clutch of cartoonist had "officially introduced the word manhua to China, initiating thereby a process for the study of both the theory and technique of this art form."

Bi Keguan, an historian of the Chinese manhua, suggests that since few of the artists in the new group had received a formal art education, their work went generally unrecognized by the established art world, one which included the new Western-style institutions.  He argues that they decided on the word manhua in response to the disdain in which they were held and as a calculated rejection of "orthodox" Chinese guohua painting and its practitioners.  By monopolising the word manhua, with all of its modern Japanese and commercial associations, they were declaring themselves to be apart from an hierarchical art scene that had no place for them.

There was, however, another school of manhua painting, one championed by both scholar-literati artists like Chen Shizeng (d. 1923) and the Japan-educated Zhejiang painter Feng Zikai (1898-1975), renowned since the debut of his art as the creator of "Zikai manhua."  Feng offered the following interpretation of the expression, and it is one worth considering as we contemplate Zhu Wei's work:

The impromptu painting is rich in the sentiment of the brush and mood of ink bimo qingqu, while the cartoon or caricature is merely concerned with satire and humour.  The former is created with few brush strokes, the latter is a detailed drawing executed with a pen...   The meaning of the term can be understood from the two characters of which it consists: man, meaning according to one's wishes; and those paintings hua which are made according to such a whim can justifiably be called manhua.(5)

And in his war-time study of the subject The Drawing of manhua, published in 1943, Zikai provided a definition of what he termed the "lyrical manhua."

[I]t is born of a sentiment that has its well-springs in the artist's own nature, therefore it is quite unlike satirical paintings which aim at social criticism, or propaganda paintings which are done with a desired effect in mind.  Such manhua are art because they create a sympathetic response in people's hearts...

I call such works lyrical manhua because they record a certain sentiment, they hint at a truth, for indeed they have no other function.  Superficially such paintings are prosaic and shallow people may find them uninteresting.  Only those with rich emotional lives can appreciate them.  So we claim these are the most artistic of all manhua.(6)

Thus if Zhu Wei is to be relegated to a school of one, to confound his critics and laud him for creating contemporary lyrical manhua would not be such a disservice.  Indeed, to do so locates him perhaps within a tradition that finds uneasy company with the makers of Political Pop, Cynical Realism and Gaudy Art, stereotyping categories that define much late-20th Century mainland commercial nonofficial painting.



(1)  See Craig Clunas, Fruitful Sites, Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 146.  The lines from a poem by Wen Zhengming can also be found in Clunas, ibid.

(2) Op. cit., p. 93.

(3)  Ibid.

(4) These remarks on manhua come from my study Art in Exile, a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) (Berkeley: University of California Press, in press).

(5) Feng Zikai, "Wode manhua," in Yang Mu, ed., Feng Zikai wenxuan IV (Taibei: Hongfan shudian, 1982), p. 197.

(6) Feng Zikai, "Manhuade miaofa," in his Feng Zikai wenji: yishu juan 4 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang wenyi/ Zhejiang jiaoyu chubanshe, 1990), pp. 274, 276-7 respectively.

At the time this essay was written in October 1998, Geremie R. Barmé was a Senior Fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra.  He is the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World (http://ciw.anu.edu.au) and editor of China Heritage Quarterly (www.chinaheritagequarterly.org).






































(1)参见柯律格(Craig Clunas)著作《丰饶之地:明代中国的园林文化》(Fruitful Sites, Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China)(达勒姆:杜克大学出版社,1996年)p. 146。其出处文徵明的诗句在柯律格该文中亦有引用,来源同上。

(2)文献同上,p. 93。


(4)此段对漫画之研究摘自拙作《艺术放逐:丰子恺的一生 (1898-1975)》(Art in Exile, a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) )(伯克利:加州大学出版社,2002年)。