Qing dynasty ‘eccentric’ painter Zheng Banqiao: Art is commodity and beauty is physical

From a laser-etched calligraphy in a restaurant, art historian Chiang Hsun delves into the writings of Qing dynasty painter and calligrapher Zheng Xie, better known as Zheng Banqiao. Zheng was part of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” group of painters who had wealthy businessmen patrons and developed an aesthetic grounded in the material and secular. Bright and colourful scenes of mirth were common — unlike the Song and Yuan dynasty literati before them who indulged in melancholic musings above worldly concerns. Contemporary ink artists may want to get some inspiration from Zheng's works, and boldly declare the feelings and observations of the times.
An aerial shot of people walking through the Zhuyuwan Scenic Area and admiring the blooming flowers in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, China, 21 February 2021. (Xinhua)
An aerial shot of people walking through the Zhuyuwan Scenic Area and admiring the blooming flowers in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, China, 21 February 2021. (Xinhua)

At the restaurant I was dining at the other day, glass partitions were part of the decor. Pieces of calligraphy were laser-etched on the glass. 

I knew at once that the works of calligraphy were by Chinese painter and calligrapher Zheng Xie, commonly known as Zheng Banqiao (1693-1765). The characters were irregular-sized and written in both clerical and regular scripts. Some characters were even written in the seal script style. The brush strokes were unhurried, unrestrained and without a hint of pretension, mirroring who Zheng was as a person — rebellious and always challenging conservative mainstream traditions.   

A friend of mine recently donated a prized piece of Zheng’s calligraphy from his private collection to the National Palace Museum. The museum was apparently elated as it did not have outstanding pieces of Zheng’s work among its collection of national treasures.

The ‘Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou’

As far as I know, the National Palace Museum is not only without outstanding pieces of Zheng’s work but is also bereft of the works by prolific painters in Yangzhou of the same generation as Zheng. These include Jin Nong, Luo Pin, Li Shan, Huang Shen, Li Fangying, Gao Xiang, Wang Shishen, Gao Fenghan, and so on, or the painters known as the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou”.

Actually, the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” consists of more than eight people. Some estimate that at least 15 artists were part of the group. “Eight Eccentrics” points to the fact that they were a group of creatives who were unorthodox, full of unconventional ideas, and went against the mainstream. In today’s parlance, they would not be “eccentric” but merely “innovative”. 

A traditional shopping street in Yangzhou. (iStock)
A traditional shopping street in Yangzhou. (iStock)

Since the Tang dynasty, Yangzhou has been a wealthy commercial city. 

In one of the short stories compiled by Liang dynasty scholar Yin Yun (《殷芸小说·吴蜀人》), there is the line “With strings of cash wrapped around my waist, I ride a crane to Yangzhou”. And in the poem Qian Huai (《遣怀》) by Tang dynasty poet Du Mu, it says: “My ten years in Yangzhou are but a dream. Alas, I’m only left with the reputation of a heartless Casanova in all the brothels I frequented.”  Yangzhou’s prosperity and wealth and its people’s decadent, consumerist lifestyles were laid bare by Tang dynasty literati such as Du and their tales of both splendour and despair.

After the Ming and Qing dynasties, Yangzhou gained control of sea and land transportation and trade. With Yangzhou as its base, a group of wealthy salt merchants forged the beginnings of a commercial liberal culture. 

Proudly of the world

These wealthy business tycoons were the driving force behind the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou”. Their strength in business fostered aspirations and pursuits of a completely different kind from those of the Song and Yuan dynasty literati whose aesthetics were more along the lines of sophistication, a disinterest in the world’s affairs, seclusion and melancholy.

Huang Shen, Fisherman and Fisherwoman (渔翁渔妇图), Nanjing Museum. (Wikimedia)
Huang Shen, Fisherman and Fisherwoman (渔翁渔妇图), Nanjing Museum. (Wikimedia)

Yangzhou’s aesthetics involve worldly things (入世 rushi). It speaks about the joys and excitement of the secular world and all that is bright and colourful. Li Shan’s paintings of flowers and fruits reflect the pleasures and satisfactions of this world; Huang Shen’s paintings of the Longevity God and the Eight Immortals are closely related to the auspicious blessings of folk temples; while the ghosts in Luo Pin’s paintings are bright and cheerful as if they were taking a walk in the common people’s Chenghuang Temple.  

Album of Ghost Paintings by Luo Ping, 18th century, long-term loan to the Honolulu Museum of Art
Luo Pin, Album of Ghost Paintings, on long-term loan to the Honolulu Museum of Art. (Wikimedia)

Jin Nong and Zheng were the most highly educated members of this aesthetics group in Yangzhou. They had both taken the imperial examinations but despised mainstream culture. Jin refused to respond to an imperial call while Zheng resigned from his position as an official and instead was happy with selling paintings in the commercial market. Their actions prove that professional painters existed and a market for paintings was already in the making then. 

Setting a price for art

Zheng’s price list for his paintings is kept in Yangzhou Museum. It reads: “A large scroll costs six taels, a medium scroll costs four, and a small scroll costs two. Book ribbons and couplets cost one tael, while fans and square papers cost half a tael each. Instead of bringing presents and food, silver will be much appreciated, because what you give me may not be what I want. If you come with silver, my heart will be filled with joy and my paintings and calligraphy will be exceptional. Gifts only spell trouble, and even a means to delay or renege on payment. I’m an old man and easily tired. Pardon me for not engaging in unproductive conversations with you.” 

Zheng Banqiao, Orchids in Ink on Fan (墨兰图扇页), The Palace Museum. (Internet)
Zheng Banqiao, Orchids in Ink on Fan (墨兰图扇页), The Palace Museum. (Internet)

Zheng saw his paintings and calligraphy as “commodities” with a fixed price. Zheng neither allowed any strings to be pulled nor accepted gifts in exchange for his works. He never wavered in his stance. Zheng is probably the first person in all of art history to speak about putting a price tag on art in such an open manner, in a departure from the noble and virtuous literati who were disinterested in the material world. Yangzhou painters going commercial and walking in step with the secular world is of groundbreaking creative significance both to the content and style of their paintings.

Since ancient times, mainstream politics only had pretensions to culture and were not really interested in the artworks per se. In fact, they feared the freedom that comes from personal liberation, and did not really care about cultural vitality. 

Without a trace

Why does the National Palace Museum not have outstanding works of the Yangzhou school? This art form was popular during the days of Emperor Qianlong’s reign, and the emperor had even visited Yangzhou before. Did he love art? Why didn’t he collect works by Yangzhou painters? 

Actually, not only does the palace collection curated by the royal family not have paintings of the Yangzhou school, it also lacks the most creative and individualistic works of Shi Tao and Bada Shanren of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. 

Since ancient times, mainstream politics only had pretensions to culture and were not really interested in the artworks per se. In fact, they feared the freedom that comes from personal liberation, and did not really care about cultural vitality. 

Zheng Banqiao, XXX (墨笔竹石图轴), The Palace Museum. (Internet)
Zheng Banqiao, Bamboo and Rocks in Ink (墨笔竹石图轴), The Palace Museum. (Internet)

Zheng saw through this a long time ago and decided to make a living by selling paintings and refused to allow the culture of corruption and old-fashioned officialdom to dull his enthusiasm and passion. 

A painter who preserved his passion

I studied Zheng’s calligraphy on the glass partition of the restaurant, not only looking at his brush strokes, but also paying attention to what he wrote. I suddenly found it very amusing and wondered who had chosen these works of his? This calligraphy is an excerpt of Zheng’s Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou in Semi-Cursive Script (《行书扬州杂记卷》). The original piece, written in small print, is kept in the Shanghai Museum, and is a casual record of random things that happened in Yangzhou. It is a very mundane record of the little things in life — I wonder which designer would have read Zheng’s Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou?   

My interest was further piqued because in recent years, city architecture seems to be leaning towards the “wabi-sabi” style (a Japanese aesthetic of imperfect beauty) that wipes out cultural memories — actually, that is not wabi-sabi anymore, but cultural emptiness and impoverishment.  

It has been a long time since I last “read” culture at a restaurant. These calligraphy pieces are clearly not just for decor — the designer had read the content of the work carefully. Zheng’s casual record of happenings in a secular world shows a consistency of human aspirations. The designer did not just pick Zheng’s calligraphy for show — the content he/she chose to feature has a common aesthetic. It reflects Zheng’s style which I believe is also the aesthetics that the designer is going for. I guess such designs are meant to be carefully read and pondered over.

Five-Pavilion Bridge, Slender West Lake, Yangzhou. (iStock)
Five-Pavilion Bridge, Slender West Lake, Yangzhou. (iStock)

The owner of the restaurant is from Hong Kong. Seeing that he was not busy, I asked him about the designer of the space. He told me that it was a Chinese lady in her fifties and living in the US. He did not know her name or background. 

Customers streamed in and the owner got busy. I did not ask further questions. 

I still think that the excerpts chosen are very interesting and worth sharing.

Yangzhou gardens were homes to wealthy and successful merchants in the commercial city. There, they received guests, indulged in fun and wine, watched operas and lived a colourful life.

Gardens of mirth and melancholy

One of the excerpts introduces a handsome man named Jiang Zhiwen, nicknamed Wugou (五狗, lit. “five dogs”). It is a short piece, but gives a vivid description of the daily lives of the common people in Yangzhou nonetheless: “Jiang Zhiwen, nicknamed Wugou. The people call him Wugou Jianglang (五狗江郎). He is very beautiful. He owns a private troupe of 12 actors who play ten different types of exotic instruments. All of them are young and handsome but pale in comparison to their master. Jiang once asked me to write a couplet for his garden, and I wrote: ‘The warm ground turns the grass green before spring; busy with flowers, the swallows forget to return home at dusk.’ He was elated and said, ‘This is not only accurate of my garden, it fits me as well.’ So he gave me a jade cup as remuneration.”  

This excerpt is interesting and reminded me of the gardens of salt merchants in Yangzhou. Our impressions of gardens mainly come from those in Suzhou. It feels very different to look at Yangzhou gardens after looking at the ones in Suzhou. 

The Humble Administrator’s Garden, a UNESCO-listed “Classical Gardens of Suzhou”. (Humble Administrator’s Garden official website)
The Humble Administrator’s Garden, a UNESCO-listed “Classical Gardens of Suzhou”. (Humble Administrator’s Garden official website)

Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园), Master of the Nets Garden (网师园, which also means fishermen's garden) and Canglang Pavilion (沧浪亭) were mostly where literati disappointed with politics retreated to. As the names “humble administrator”, “master of the nets”, and “canglang (surging waves)” suggest, solitude and melancholy rule, rather than liveliness or vibrance. With just a thin bamboo grove and a lone pavilion by the water, the Humble Administrator’s Garden’s “With Whom Shall I Sit Pavilion” (与谁同坐轩) pursues the enlightenment expressed in Su Dongpo’s poetry of exile: “With whom shall I sit — the moon, the wind, and myself.” The aloof pride of disillusioned literati fills every corner of the Suzhou gardens.    

Yangzhou gardens were homes to wealthy and successful merchants in the commercial city. There, they received guests, indulged in fun and wine, watched operas and lived a colourful life. They were without the loneliness of the politically frustrated and were filled with passion about the secular world and reality. There would not be that many obscure imaginations within these spaces.   

Freedom in a material world

I like this Jiang Zhiwen. He was perhaps a young and successful businessman. His nickname Wugou is also without the pretentious elegance of well-educated literati. I guess this Wugou Jianglang should be a young and shrewd businessman who was handsome and wore fashionable clothes. Zheng described him in extremely colloquial terms: very beautiful. He must have been a very handsome man, but his beautiful appearance was not limited to his looks, but also included extraordinary confidence coming from someone who had seen the world and experienced life.

Zheng Banqiao, Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou in Semi-Cursive Script (〈行书扬州杂记卷〉) on Wugou Jianglang, calligraphy, partial, Shanghai Museum. (Internet)
Zheng Banqiao, Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou in Semi-Cursive Script (〈行书扬州杂记卷〉) on Wugou Jianglang, calligraphy, partial, Shanghai Museum. (Internet)

Zheng paid attention to a person's beauty. He had written about beautiful women and also beautiful men. Wugou Jianglang owned a troupe of 12 actors who sang opera, and also played ten different types of exotic instruments, like a modern band. This reminded me of Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber that was also written in a similar time period. The Jiangning Imperial Silk Manufacturing company was located in Yangzhou and Cao’s family had been the officials-in-charge. The family also had a private troupe of 12 actors, while what was written in Dream of the Red Chamber was a troupe of 12 actresses, and Wugou Jianglang’s was a troupe of 12 actors.   

“Green before spring”; “busy with flowers”, and “forget to return home at dusk” illustrate the gifts that the heavens have bestowed upon Yangzhou. With strong economic support and the ability to have fun round the clock, people in the commercial city were able to unlock their senses and experience freedom in life. 

The pretentious human body that has long been shackled to orthodox and conservative dogmas was overturned by Zheng in such a bold manner and ripped into pieces.

He Garden (何园) in Yangzhou. (Photo: Mark Andrews)
He Garden (何园) in Yangzhou. (Photo: Mark Andrews)

Back then, Zheng often added inscriptions to the gardens of the wealthy. This was perhaps also a source of income for him.

A wealthy businessman with the surname Chang had asked Zheng to add an inscription to his garden. Zheng wrote: “I will let the oriole [meaning prostitute] insult me as I am kind to its delicate tongue, I will let you go wild as I love your soft willowy waist [referring to the willows].” The words Zheng used in this couplet are erotic, indulgent and wilful. It remains a provocative verse even when we read it today. The pretentious human body that has long been shackled to orthodox and conservative dogmas was overturned by Zheng in such a bold manner and ripped into pieces. Mind you, this was an inscription in a Yangzhou garden and not a design. It was more like an emblem signifying a revolution of the body.           

Will people write such calligraphy today? Or hang it up in one’s home?

But the owner of the garden was elated and gave Zheng his favourite young servant as remuneration. Zheng later said that the servant never left his side.

The Yangzhou culture is hard to decipher, but through Zheng and a few excerpts of his miscellaneous records of Yangzhou, a city that was once prosperous seems to have been revived. 

Zheng is often honoured as a xiucai (秀才) in Emperor Kangxi’s era, a juren (举人) in Emperor Yongzheng’s era, and a jinshi (进士) in Emperor Qianlong’s era. Having participated in the imperial examinations, Zheng can be said to have possessed a Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degree in today’s terms. But he had no care for these accolades at all. Just take a look at his famous satirical verse on the imperial examination (《偶然作》, An Accidental Work): “What's the use of the writings of foolish Confucius scholars? Their forte is in copying from the scriptures and historical records. Adorned with quotes and grand words, nothing inspires in their content.”

He wanted to restore life to humanity’s core state of being dazzling and free. 

Beauty in daily life

Until today, “copying from the scriptures and historical records” is still the forte of our college system. But the sky’s the limit for creatives. Someone as outstanding as Zheng had striven to escape from the copying and pasting of words from numerous sources and had created unique interpretations and styles in his writings and paintings. He wanted to restore life to humanity’s core state of being dazzling and free. 

The other side of the restaurant’s glass partition was etched with another excerpt from Zheng’s Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou in Semi-Cursive Script which talks about a beautiful woman. It goes like this: “February, Yangzhou, the season of flowers. Taking a walk in the morning, I crossed the Rainbow Bridge from Flower Border Village and arrived at the Thunder Lake area. I continued towards the Jade Arc [or Crescent Moon] Slope archaeological site which was 10 li away. The trees were thick and there were few people. Seeing a Ginko tree amid the fences and bamboos,  I knocked and went in to wander beneath the blossoms. There was an old lady seated in a thatched roof pavilion with a bowl of tea. She was looking at Zheng Banqiao’s calligraphy hanging on the wall. I asked, ‘Do you know who he is?’ She replied, ‘I have heard his name, but I don’t know him.’ I said, ‘I am Zheng Banqiao.’ She was elated, shouting as she ran, ‘Daughter, wake up! Daughter, wake up! Master Zheng Banqiao is here!’”  

Zheng Banqiao, Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou in Semi-Cursive Script (〈行书扬州杂记卷〉) on Daughter, Wake Up, calligraphy, partial, Shanghai Museum. (Internet)
Zheng Banqiao, Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou in Semi-Cursive Script (〈行书扬州杂记卷〉) on Daughter, Wake Up, calligraphy, partial, Shanghai Museum. (Internet)

What beautiful words. It describes the daily life of the common folks. So cheerful, with the sun bright and the birds chirping. It is such a good piece for spring. 

The old woman woke her daughter up when Zheng came to visit. An ardent fan, the daughter jumped out of bed and prettied herself as she got ready to meet Zheng. The designer left out the events that followed. You would have to read the rest of the story for yourself on Shanghai Museum’s website under the entry “Miscellaneous Items on Yangzhou in Semi-Cursive Script”. 

This article was first published in Chinese on United Daily News as “五狗江郎——餐廳鄭板橋”.

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