An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) / Edition 1

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This engrossing book, a brilliant blend of biography and criticism, tells the story of Feng Zikai (1898-1975), one of the most gifted and important artists to emerge from the politically tumultuous decades of the 1920s and 1930s. Barmé provides a closely woven parallel history, that of the life of writer-artist Feng, who was also an essayist and a translator, and that of China's turbulent twentieth century. He investigates Feng Zikai's aesthetic vision, its development, and how it relates to traditional and contemporary Chinese cultural values and debates.

Although Feng was known for his so-called casual drawings, he was reluctant to classify his art. According to Barmé, much of his writing and painting was rooted in a philosophy of self-expression. Difficult to position in relation to existing Chinese political and social nomenclature, Feng remains, to a large extent, an enigma. He was sympathetic to the average person and the impoverished peasant, yet he was a romantic, and often identified with the increasingly politicized intelligentsia. A devout Buddhist, he was a close observer of nature and children, and while his art appeared gentle, it often carried a strong message.

Much has been written about Feng Zikai, a figure who has become popular among elite and mass audiences in the Chinese world once more, but no other work has examined his place among May Fourth writers and intellectuals nor his position within the context of China's artistic, religious, and literary tradition. An Artistic Exile moves straight to the heart of debates surrounding modernization, religion, science, the essence of a tradition in an age of colonial modernity, and the ethos of political and social thought in twentieth-century China.

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Editorial Reviews

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
A wealth of interesting detail and provocative ideas about the life and creative activities of a fascinating major figure in 20th century Chinese art. Barmé makes a convincing case for seeing in Feng's mixture of traditionalist and progressive concern-and interest in Chinese and Western aesthetics, Buddhism and patriotism-a humanism that transcends categorization.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520208322
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 12/3/2002
  • Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 482
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Geremie R. Barmé is a Professor at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
Institute of Advanced Studies, at the Australian National University. He is the editor of East Asian History and is author of
In the Red
(1999), Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (1996), and coeditor of New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (1992). He was also an associate director and writer for the film The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Boston 1995), and is codirecting with Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon Morning Sun, a documentary film on the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

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Read an Excerpt

An Artistic Exile

A Life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975)

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-20832-3

Chapter One

New Paintings for Old Poems

In late 1924, after the dispute with Jing Hengyi and the local authorities over educational policy at Chunhui, a group of teachers, including Feng Zikai, resigned and abandoned the picturesque lakeside school at Shangyu to return to the urban bustle of Shanghai, where they established a new college, the Li Da High School. Zikai sold the Small Willow House on the shore of White Horse Lake and used the proceeds to help his colleagues secure rooms in Hongkou in the International Settlement, where they first set up the school, although they were soon forced to move because of high rents. The name Li Da was inspired by the Confucian Analects: "As for the good man: what he wishes to achieve for himself, he helps others achieve [li]; what he wishes to obtain for himself, he enables others to obtain [da]-the ability simply to take one's own aspirations as a guide is a recipe for goodness."

The leaky and rundown rooms in which the school was first established belied the lofty aims of its founders. Li Da was to be run according to egalitarian principles of the kind that were ultimately abandoned at Shangyu, principles that were in part influenced by the precepts of the New Village Movement, led in Japan by the novelist Mushanokoji Saneatsu (1885-1976). In the years 1910-20, Mushanokoji and Shiga Naoya (1883-1871) were at the center of a new literary school that found a voice in White Birch, a magazine that promoted a style of optimistic humanism subsequently identified with the Taisho era as a whole. "Their message ... offered what many young people wanted: a break from the past, confidence in one's own feelings and ... an escape from reality." The New Village Movement had so impressed Zhou Zuoren when he had visited some of the settlements in 1919 that he wrote glowing accounts for the Chinese press of the sense of social equality and idealism in the communal rural organization set up by these visionary writers. In keeping with these principles, no headmaster was appointed at Li Da, and the founders declared that the pupils were to be treated like children of the teachers, or even as friends rather than charges. As the new enterprise attracted increasing numbers of students, the group of colleagues soon acquired the means to build their own school buildings at Jiangwan in the Shanghai suburbs; following the move they changed the name of the college to the Li Da Academy.

On its first anniversary, the members of the Li Da Association published a manifesto outlining the premise and goals of the institution. Signed by fifty-one teachers, many of whom also had careers as writers, artists, and translators, the program declared that the organization was not an alliance born of political ideology but one founded "with the aim of cultivating the individual, undertaking scholastic research, and achieving the transformation of society." It was open to the public and, in addition to operating the school, the Li Da Association-many members of which were prominent young cultural activists in Shanghai-decided to inaugurate its own magazine, Equals, and a series of books, and to expand its activities to run various educational research groups. In 1925 the school had 139 students, and for a time it flourished, a beneficiary of the educational boom in the city. For many people in the city and the surrounding provinces, Shanghai was above all a place of hope, and one way that hope could be realized was through education. This yearning for success dovetailed with the traditional emphasis on learning, one that was reinforced by a culture-including works of popular drama and fiction-that featured stories of earnest students, official examinations, success through study, and the romance of reading. Ambition could be realized through study, and for many families the education of the young was a way to break free of the "karma of poverty."

Feng Zikai was in charge of Western art classes at Li Da, which were eventually subsumed by an arts department. When the journal Equals was launched in September 1926, he also took on the job of graphic designer. The magazine was a new publication for Kaiming Shudian (literally, "Enlightenment Books"), a leading progressive publishing house established by Zhang Xichen, formerly an editor with the Commercial Press. Zhang's enterprise was supported by members of both the Li Da Academy and the Literature Research Society. Zikai was invited to devise the new house's logo. His work with Kaiming allowed him a free hand to design the magazine, and it gave full scope to his interest in graphics. During the two years that Equals ran, Feng created most of the illustrations and nearly all of the accompanying artwork for articles.

The marriage of painting and poetry and the use of poetic inscriptions, either of the artist's composition or by the hand of others, had been common practice since the Song dynasty. Paintings that illustrated or mirrored lines of classical Chinese poetry were typical also in Feng Zikai's earliest published work. It was within the tradition of scholar-painting, or free-brush art, in particular in the union of painting with poetry, "the literary aspect of art" as Feng called it, that he had found an immediate cultural template for his work. In his evolution of a personalized form of scholar-art-one in which he could combine the painted line of the sketch with the calligraphic stroke of poetry for mass reproduction in popular journals-Feng was able to develop and make commercially viable the manhua art he had admired in Japan and China. But above all, he was most keenly aware of the relevance to modern readers of the sensibility and emotions of the authors of famous lines of poetry. It is through his visual reinterpretation of lines of classical verse while working at the Li Da Academy that he now attempted to create, as he put it, "an experimental form of art ... using Western principles in pursuit of a Chinese artistic expression," one that, while alluding constantly to elite cultural practice and vision, was in its style both popular and accessible.

Zheng Zhenduo had initially been attracted to Feng Zikai's paintings of classical poetry because, as he claimed, "Zikai ... has achieved something quite profound and presented us with a beguiling and ethereal vision." The paintings Zheng used in Literature Weekly were of a similarly otherworldly character. Based on themes from lines of classical poetry, the images often tended to jar with the mood of the magazine as a whole, although perhaps it was that Zheng was interested in creating pointed juxtapositions. The first published "Zikai manhua," entitled "The swallows return but not he," was appropriately enough placed on a page of love songs by the Greek poet Philodemus that had been translated from the English by Zheng Zhenduo. In this image we find the characteristic repertoire of Feng's early work: swallows flying into view while breaking the frame of the picture, and the tender spring growth of a willow. The traditional symbols of longing and the new season complement the mood of the lovelorn young woman leaning on a decidedly modern-looking balcony. The correlation between Feng's paintings and the contents of the weekly were, however, not always so felicitous, and only a few weeks later the painting "The jade green [of willows] caresses the heads of passers-by," one of his most famous early works, appeared alongside the third installment of Mao Dun's rather stern article "On Proletarian Literature." This issue of Literature Weekly appeared the day after the May Thirtieth Incident, in which twelve student demonstrators were killed at the Lousa Police Station in the International Settlement of Shanghai during a confrontation with Sikh and Chinese police under British command. Zikai did not have another painting in the magazine for over six weeks; the next picture to appear was "The vote," a poetic depiction of a public vote at what appears to be a public meeting.

This painting is easily interpreted as overtly political, quite possibly an illustration of a scene at one of the rallies organized in Shanghai by concerned public, educational, and literary organizations to protest against the recent atrocity by the British. As a member of the Literature Research Society and a signatory of the joint protest issued after the incident by groups in Shanghai, Feng may well have attended a meeting where such a vote was taken. He would daresay have been as shocked and outraged by the loss of life as were his associates Zheng Zhenduo, Zhu Ziqing, and Ye Shengtao, who all readily voiced their fury and sense of betrayal. Indeed, the May Thirtieth Incident marked a major point of departure in the politicization of young intellectuals. Just as Zikai was evolving an artistic style suited to his lyrical sensitivities and finding support among his friends, many of his contemporaries were becoming radicalized. Although he would remain sympathetic to the travails of students and laborers, Zikai never became politically active, as did other members of his generation, including Cao Juren (1900-72), a fellow student of Li Shutong, Rou Shi, or even his friend Ye Shengtao. Ye, who along with Mao Dun, had been at the Nanjing Road demonstration and had witnessed the massacre, wrote about the agonizing memory of the violence on that day in May and the significance of the bloodshed, while the usually mild and circumspect Zhu Ziqing, Zikai's friend from his Chunhui days, composed an accusatory "Song of Blood."

The hand of blood clearly pointing at him, me, you!
The eyes of blood, encompassing all, staring at him, me, you!
The mask of blood, reviling, scolding, shouting at him, me, you!
Our heads smashed and our bellies pierced,
We remain brothers!
Our heads still on our necks, our hearts remain in our chests,
But our blood? What of our blood? It is seething!

As Tsi-an Hsia observes of the turn in literary style and the new cadences of cultural expression within the leftist literary movement that found voice at this time and in which Zhu Ziqing momentarily found fellowship,

The climacteric change for a writer in the middle or later 1920s was a swing from passive sentimentality to revolutionary frenzy. His emotional instability tended to carry him to extremes, but a prevalent misconception of literature also limited his field of choice. Writing some years after 1919, he was still in a sense a pioneer. Only a few beaten tracks lay ahead of him, the other possibilities for literature being unknown. He used to be with one kind of writing, whose rhetorical devices he had begun to learn as a schoolboy. But this he was taught to despise as useless. His writings were now not to satisfy himself but rather the demands politics made on him. Literature became a means to an end; and if there were better means to serve that end, he had to employ them.

It is obvious from Zikai's "The vote," however, that the lissome configuration created by the swaying reed-like arms raised in support of (or in opposition to) a motion put to the vote at the protest meeting was what caught the artist's eye. The image could either be taken as an artist's quasi-journalistic report of a mass gathering of protesters or as the semi-abstract depiction of a scene, the contemporary significance of which fades before its lyricism.

Regardless of his momentary political ardor, Zhu Ziqing remained one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Feng's paintings. In them, he claimed, he found something new and exciting. "We are delighted by the lyrical dimension of your manhua. Each painting is like a short poem, one with a very rare essence. In these captured images and fleeting moments you reveal to us a world of poetry. It is as though you have given us olives to eat: their flavor lingers on." But not everyone who saw these new manhua was equally enthralled. As Zikai himself wrote,

Some people take one look at my paintings and cry out in alarm, "But this person has no eyes or nose, only a mouth!" or, "The four fingers on this person's hand are all stuck together!" Those who congratulate themselves for their powers of observation even comment, "How come you can't see any eyes behind the glasses on this fellow?" But such remarks aren't worth responding to, so I ignore them. I was quite satisfied reading ci poetry, capturing my visions as they appeared to me and creating my manhua.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Bengali poet, philosopher, and Nobel laureate much celebrated among Chinese intellectuals at the time as a defender of Asian traditional values, recognized an ineffable otherworldliness when he was shown some of the paintings Zikai had done to illustrate old poems by Wei Fengjiang, a graduate of Chunhui who went to study in India in 1933. Tagore reportedly commented to Wei,

There is no prerequisite for art to be detailed; it is enough if one can capture the spirit of an object. Your teacher's paintings depict the personality of his subjects with the most restrained use of strokes. [Although he paints] a face with no eyes, we can see what is being seen; a head may have no ears, but we can hear what is being heard. This is a most sublime artistic realm! It has come about by melding poetry with painting; it is an innovation in its own right.

Feng's sketches were, nonetheless, hardly an innovation; indeed, such works had been common among scholar-painters since the Song dynasty, when Su Shi made a famous comment that there was poetry in the painting of Tang artist and writer Wang Wei (701-61), and painting in his poetry. By the reign of Zhao Ji, Emperor Huizong of the Song (r. 1101-25), candidates for the Imperial Art Academy were routinely asked to illustrate lines of poetry as part of the selection process.

It may seem surprising that Feng Zikai should choose lines from classical poetry as the major source for his early work. Since Feng had spent long years acquiring an understanding of and basic competence in Western art, and he began painting for publication at the height of the May Fourth period -the most iconoclastic era in Chinese cultural history-it is ironic that he found inspiration for some of his most memorable and successful works in the familiar and highly structured realm of traditional verse. But Zikai discovered in the multifarious interrelationship between poetry and painting a profound confirmation of his approach to art, or what he called the "literary perspective of the artist."

When I read landscape poems by ancient writers, I often discover that they have a clear sense of perspective, even if it is intangible.


Excerpted from An Artistic Exile by GEREMIE R. BARME Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



1. Taking Nature as Master
2. Journey to the East
3. The Artist and His Epithet
4. New Paintings for Old Poems
5. The Cult of the Child
6. Protecting Life and Preserving the Self
7. Marketplace and Mountains
8. A Chinese Perspective
9. The Artist Liberated
10. Belated Blossoming

Epilogue: The Art of Exile


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