Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Art of Feng Zikai: nature, life and humanity

One of the highlights from my recent trip to Hong Kong was the art exhibition by the artist Feng Zikai (豐子愷) currently being held in the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Feng Zikai was one of the most influential Chinese artists of the early 20th Century and was a major contributor to early development of Chinese comics (manhua) and modern Chinese art. The exhibition showcased a huge bulk of Feng's works that was produced and published in the 1920s and 30s. Feng developed a distinct style with the use of traditional Chinese brush strokes in Western cartoon format, but similar to traditional Chinese art all of his pieces usually have poetic inscriptions at the side. As a Buddhist himself Feng's works carried very strong notion of Buddhist philosophy but without encroaching the religious doctrine onto us. Unlike traditional paintings that are laden with beautiful sceneries his works explore common subjects of everyday life in society.

Children were often featured in his artworks as he captures the innocence and sincerity of his subjects. His works also contains humour (sometimes satirical) which are unseen in ancient Chinese paintings, they presented in a symbolic way. The simplicity and the poetic aesthetics in his drawings give out a very melancholic feeling. He can get his messages across with just without being too direct and overdramatic, which obviously derived from Feng's Buddhist beliefs. Sometimes it leaves the viewers to come with their own interpretations. Nature and human life, as part of his ideas to cultivate love (or affection 有情) and peace. As you can see his notion even predates the hippy movement in the 1960s.

Even during the second world war he painted pictures to promote peace and questioned the human suffering in war as oppose to propaganda art to rile up the nation's patriotism against the Japanese invaders, thus his pacifistic stance drew a lot of criticism from his peers at the time. Again this chimes in greatly with his Buddhist belief. These drawings can be found in his book Paintings on the Preservation of Life.

"War and Music"

"I want to become an angel, /Soaring high in the sky, / Following the enemy planes, / And grabbing their bombs."

The purpose of Paintings on the Preservation of Life is to admonish people to treasure their lives and to refrain from killing so that we can cultivate benevolence and love and promote peace…. When I ask an urchin not to trample on ants, it is not because I cherish ants, or because I want to provide food to sustain them; it is because I am afraid that this little cruelty [if it remains unchecked] will turn into aggression in the future, using planes to carry heavy bombs to kill innocent people.
"Ze wu hui zhi yi" (Do not burn it), in Yuanyuantang jiwai yiwen

Even as a follower of Buddhism he does have his own critical thoughts on the religion. Buddhists often preach the notion of non-killing but Feng accepts that violent act such as killing animals for food ( but not for the sake of it) is all part of the cultivation of human life, therefore it is hypocritical to think otherwise. As an educator Feng was set apart from other teachers and his thoughts were considered to be very liberal, even ahead of his time. He criticized conventional education for taking the life and creativity away from students. This is still a concern in modern education.

Even though his art are stylistically Chinese, I think they have universal appeal and his ideas are every bit as relevant even in this day and age. We can learn a lot from Feng's philosophy on human nature and the messages contained in his works promote values that are much needed in modern society. I hope that Feng Zikai will gain more recognition in the west and for his works to be introduced to the UK in the future. For any art lovers who happen to be in Hong Kong this summer be sure to check it out.


  1. Can almost picture his work as an animation with the light use of Chinese brush strokes. The last two drawings look more cartoony and political probably not done with the same brush, maybe a brushpen, but if they are, quite fluid.

    1. A few of the drawings were made into animations in the exhibition. Unfortunately I'm not allowed to take pictures or videos inside.

    2. Exhibition tour:

      Short clip of animation reinterpreted by students from the Hong Kong design institute at 3:41

    3. Cheers that's exactly what I saw.