From Romance of the West Chamber to Matisse—Ink Paintings by Qiu Zhenzhong

Points of Departure and Lines of Comparison: The Recent Works of Qiu Zhenzhong

The Chinese brush began life simply as hair or fur stuffed into a bamboo tube. Chinese ink was likewise made of the simplest of materials: fine soot and a binding agent. Whether in their original form or in the more sophisticated and refined materials that emerged through time, brush and ink are together capable of producing breathtaking work, brimming with creativity and expressing life and vitality. In contemporary society, however, brush-and-ink painting faces the inevitable challenges of modernity. Many artists, particularly those who lack training in the profound ways of the brush, are not up to the challenge. Instead, they contribute to the evolution of Chinese visual culture by creating “ink art”, which is not to be confused with brush-and-ink painting. Too often, this distinction is not made sufficiently clear. Qiu Zhenzhong, though, has given considerable thought to the challenge and has responded in a very direct way in his theories of art, his calligraphy and, most recently, in his painting. In traditional times, the most gifted Chinese artists practised the “Three Perfections”—poetry, calligraphy and painting—to create works that made a difference to the history of art. In today’s world, it is unusual to find the embodiment of these three interrelated art forms in one person, and Qiu is a rare example.

Qiu Zhenzhong, a Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, is well known for his expertise in poetry, calligraphy, cultural studies and linguistics. Qiu, who graduated with a master’s degree in calligraphy from the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou (formerly called the Zhejiang Fine Arts Institute), believes that the value of calligraphy lies in its lines instead of characters, and he is committed to finding ways for calligraphy to play an important role in contemporary art. His series “Characters to Be Deciphered”, begun in 1988, was a watershed in expressing these views. Based on unrecognised characters from bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the series reached back into China’s ancient past. The series acknowledged man’s ever-present desire and need to communicate, while focusing on lines. Because these characters themselves are unreadable, the brushstrokes become paramount and their interplay of lines convey the many nuances of which the brush is capable, including tempo and pressure. “Characters to Be Deciphered No. 31” (page x) and “Characters to Be Deciphered No. 32” (page x), both produced in 2003, are small-size works where the dialogue between tempo and pressure of the brush lines becomes a conversation of ink tonalities and the dryness or wetness of the brush.

According to Qiu, traditional calligraphy focuses on the “art of characters” while modern calligraphy focuses on the “art of lines”. His most recent work, however, seems to eschew calligraphy altogether and instead concentrates on ink paintings of figures and still-lifes. His sources of inspiration may at first glance seem disparate: the paintings of Matisse and the woodblock prints depicting the well-known Chinese tale “Romance of the West Chamber”. Underpinning both, however, is the “art of lines”. It is with both an open-mindedness and a methodical approach that Qiu’s desire to transform both the paintings of Matisse and Chinese woodblock prints into contemporary Chinese ink painting begins. Qiu Zhenzhong asserts that the creation of contemporary Chinese ink painting is a result of the combination of traditional Chinese and modern Western art. Many people, however, are unclear about how this happened—whether it was a betrayal of tradition or a unification of East and West. The two series of works by Qiu provide an answer to this question: Can Chinese contemporary ink painting benefit from incorporating some of the important elements of traditional Chinese and modern Western art? If the answer is yes, then what are the positive elements it is able to draw from, and what is the method of its transformation? Most people today believe that the most valuable contemporary art in China must be a form of art transformed from the very roots of Chinese culture—ink painting being considered an essential category of Chinese art and culture. The question that Qiu poses in his two series is a vital contribution to the Chinese ink painting scene and even contemporary Chinese art as a whole.

In giving this short essay the title “Points of Departure and Lines of Comparison”, calligraphy remains at the forefront. By substituting the word “points” with “dots”, and combining it with the word “lines”, we are at the heart of calligraphy and Chinese painting. Qiu’s renditions of Matisse and woodblock prints incorporate both dots and lines brushed in ink. In his essay for the catalogue of the recently opened exhibition “Out of Character—Decoding Chinese Calligraphy” at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Michael Knight recalls the words of Sun Guoting (648–703), “You must understand the use of dots and lines and make a broad study of the historical developments of characters”.1

As an accomplished modern calligrapher, Qiu Zhenzhong has studied the development of Chinese characters for most of his life. In focusing on Matisse and woodblock prints, he aims to use his brush to understand every detail of these masterpieces—their techniques and essence.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was a source of profound inspiration for leading 20th century Chinese artists, particularly those who lived in Paris. Matisse, a leading light of the Fauve movement, was a supreme colourist who was also deeply interested in the importance of line. Of 20th century Chinese painters inspired by him, Sanyu (Chang Yu, 1901–1966) and Lin Fengmian (1900–1991) come quickly to mind, but there are others as well. Sanyu’s work, particularly his sketches of nudes in ink and charcoal on paper, afford the best comparison with Qiu Zhenzhong’s recent paintings. Sanyu painted and drew in a succinct and elegant manner, always striving to reach the essence of the matter. He was emboldened by his grasp of linearity, in which he had been trained during his years of studying Chinese calligraphy and painting. Upon his arrival in Europe, Sanyu’s repertoire expanded so that he used pencil, charcoal, and oil, in addition to his native ink.

Qiu Zhenzhong has transposed some of Matisse’s richly coloured oil on canvas paintings in the collection of Pompidou Centre into large-scale ink on paper paintings and smaller-scale studies. One preliminary study, for example, is based on Matisse’s 1925 “Nu assis sur fond rouge”. The original, of a female nude seated on a red-and-yellow striped chair, has a deep and powerful red background. In Qiu’s study (not illustrated in this catalogue), Matisse’s lines are further simplified and the palette is reduced to tones of grey. The background is the blank xuan paper. The female nude predominates. It is brushed on paper in shades of greys darker than the chair, which is depicted in lighter toned stripes.

On the question of colour, Matisse himself noted that an artist “must draw first to cultivate the spirit and that it is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch colour…”2 In other words, colour should not become a distraction. This view is similar to the precepts of traditional Chinese brush-and-ink painting, in which colour and colour washes are secondary to well-executed lines and dots. To reach the absolute essence of a subject, Matisse recognised the importance of line. In her audio commentary of “Dance (I)”, MoMa curator Ann Temkin notes, “In 1908, the year before he made this painting, Matisse was quoted as saying, ‘Suppose I want to paint a woman’s body. First of all, I imbue it with grace and charm, but I know that I must give something more. I will condense the meaning of this body by seeking its essential lines. The charm will be less apparent at first glance, but it must eventually emerge from the new image, which will have a broader meaning, one more fully human.’”3 At first glance, Qiu’s ink painting appears distinct from Matisse’s original works, but on careful examination, both works are consistent in charm and vitality.

Qiu Zhenzhong’s admiration of Matisse goes far beyond the Pompidou works seen by him during a two-month Paris sojourn in early 2003. The works that inspire Qiu extend beyond oils on canvases to include Matisse’s pen and ink works as well as sculpture. One of Qiu’s small ink studies is based on Matisse’s famous, monumental “Dance”, which was painted in two versions: “Dance (I)” (1909) and “Dance (II)” (1910)—the former being a preliminary version of the latter. In both, Matisse simplified the human body, eliminating the unessential, to create an image of energetic joy signified in the five nude figures who dance in a circle. Qiu’s 2012 small-scale study “Matisse: Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance’ (I)” (page x) concentrates solely on the two figures at the far left of the original. With unbroken lines brushed in ink, the arms of the dancer in the foreground become elongated. The left side of the dancer’s torso and her raised and outstretched arm is one long, confident line. The background, by contrast, is textured in an abstract pattern composed of diffuse and soft free-form blocks of grey.

Dotting is the other component Qiu introduces in his Matisse renditions. They are most apparent in the large-scale suites in which textiles and still-lifes are enriched by diffused dots in wet ink. It is also in these large-scale suites that the unique qualities of Chinese brush-and-ink leap out. Two 2012 paintings, “Matisse First Series No. 1: Female Nude in Studio” (page x) and “Matisse First Series No. 2: Female Nude Kneeling Before Mirror” (page x), are immensely assured: the lines confident and the pattern of the textiles on which the nudes recline or kneel, complex and nuanced in a way that the Matisse originals are not. “Matisse First Series No. 2: Female Nude Kneeling Before Mirror” is based on Matisse’s 1937 “Nu devant le miroir”, a drawing in pen and India ink on white paper. Without compromising the confidence of the line, which depicts the female figure in the original, Qiu’s version brings a visual richness with the juxtaposition of assured line and patterned embellishments. Only an artist skilled with Chinese brush-and-ink could achieve this, and the key to their success lies in not compromising Matisse’s own vision. Qiu grasps Matisse’s style, capturing how the French artist’s deepest feeling is similar to elements expressed in the Chinese tradition.

The paintings comprising Qiu’s “Matisse Third Series”, “No. 1: Landscape” (page x), “No. 2: The Coiffure” (page x) and “No. 3: Standing Nude” (page x), all produced in late 2012, pay tribute to paintings and sculptures by the French modernist. In Qiu’s hands, the brush, loaded with dark and rich ink, strikes the paper with energy and dynamism, creating works of vigour and insistence.

After producing his Matisse series, Qiu carefully and deliberately chose to work with the Ming dynasty illustrations of the Chinese literary classic “Romance of the West Chamber”, thus creating a threefold relationship: Matisse–Qiu Zhenzhong–Romance of the West Chamber. In stretching boundaries, Qiu has placed himself firmly in the centre: modern Western – contemporary Chinese; contemporary Chinese – traditional Chinese; traditional Chinese – modern Western.

Printing is one of China’s greatest achievements, and has had a continuous development of over one thousand years. Qiu’s transformation of the printed line to a brushed lined is an intriguing act of deconstruction, but it goes further than that. His uninscribed paintings are devoid of text. Relying entirely on the nuances of the brush to create human figures, their gestures and surroundings, the paintings eliminate the textual descriptions that are found in the original prints. As early as the 8th century, prints were mass-produced in China by pressing paper onto the inked surface of a wooden block carved with text and illustration or both. Initially, single colour prints were produced, followed by multi-colour ones. The world’s earliest dated printed book is Chinese. The 868 CE “Diamond Sutra”, a long horizontal scroll, is now in the collection of the British Library in London.4 It opens with an illustrated frontispiece showing the Buddha and his elderly disciple Subhuti, as well as other members of the Buddha’s retinue. This is followed by the sacred text. The “Diamond Sutra” was amongst a cache of documents found by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein in the Dunhuang caves, in China’s north-west.

Qiu Zhenzhong has taken illustrations from the “Romance of the West Chamber” as a point of departure, using the Hongzhi period (1487–1505) printed version of this immensely popular love story as a source of inspiration.5 Dated 1498, this version is the earliest and most complete printed edition of the drama. Like the “Diamond Sutra”, it is a document combining illustrations and text. In the “Romance of the West Chamber”, illustrations at the top of the pages portray the scenes described in the text below. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), vernacular literature was widely disseminated by woodblock printed texts. In addition to the 1498 version, the “Romance of the West Chamber” was illustrated by well-known artists such as Chen Hongshou (1599–1651), who contributed to a 1639 version.

The Yuan dynasty playwright Wang Shifu (c. 1260–1336) based the “Romance of the West Chamber” on the Tang dynasty prose romance “The Story of Yingying”. Wang deftly characterised the main dramatis personae. Scholar Zhang, Widow Cui, her daughter Yingying with whom Zhang falls in love, and the memorable maidservant, Hongniang, who allies herself with the young lovers, provide ample material for contemporary, expressive brush-and-ink interpretations. The consummated, clandestine love affair between Scholar Zhang and Yingying provides moments of heightened emotions as well as near-comedic elements, while the presence of bandits and other malcontents injects moments of danger.

Popular scenes from the “Romance of the West Chamber” have been interpreted innumerable times in Chinese art and in many materials, including ceramics and carvings. Qiu’s Chinese brush-and-ink painting interpretations, like the ones inspired by Matisse, follow a methodical approach: a first, second and third series, as well as studies. In two large-scale 2008 paintings, “Romance of the West Chamber First Series No. 1: Yingying and Hongniang” (page x) and “Romance of the West Chamber First Series No. 2: Longing for Love” (page x), the close relationship between Yingying and her maidservant, Hongniang, can be observed primarily through their body language. Hongniang is often solicitous and although Qiu makes use of their relative sizes to indicate their roles, their postures and gestures are more revealing. The elaborate backgrounds of Yingying’s bedchamber or of architectural settings are brushed in ink lighter in tone than the figural depictions, placing greater emphasis on the human elements of the story. The first series of Qiu’s paintings successfully transforms lines from woodblock printing into ink painting, thus, transposing mass-produced woodblock prints into paintings in graceful literati style. As Chinese contemporary art, they are a rare demonstration of the creation of a new type of art. The human element in the Third Series is rendered in a bold way. Brushed with speed and fluidity in very dark ink of one tone, the headless figures stand starkly against a blank background. These are paintings of power and vitality—entirely contemporary in form and expression. The movement of the flowing garments is rendered in thick brushstrokes to great effect. The woodblock prints rely on text and detailed background images to convey the story. Qiu has dispensed with both to focus only on what matters to him most.

The first step in creating woodblock prints is to brush or draw pictures and/or texts on a piece of paper. The paper is dampened and placed facedown on a block of wood and then blank areas are carved out, leaving the linear design in relief. When ink is applied to the woodblock and a sheet of paper pressed down on it, a print is created. A precisely carved image or character can be as crisp as the chisel is sharp. Qiu Zhenzhong’s “Romance of the West Chamber” paintings, on the other hand, have many more diffused, blurred and softened lines than the original woodblock print, bringing an overall romance to the depictions. It is not possible to confuse them with the originals, and the large scale of the “Suites” also means they could never be mistaken for the original woodblock prints.

Qiu knows well the implications of “copying” (linmo 臨摹). As a highly trained calligrapher, he has learnt practical brush-and-ink skills by making replicas of works by past masters and, as he writes in his exhibition introduction, his motivation for approaching the paintings of Matisse and the prints of “Romance of the West Chamber” are with linmo in mind. In China, linmo is an accepted pedagogical approach that is both endorsed and encouraged. The Chinese-language vocabulary for “copying”, however, is much more nuanced than the English-language counterpart.

First and foremost, Qiu views his paintings as conceptual pieces. Traditional approaches to linmo generally pair the model or masterpiece with an artist using the same materials (brush, ink, pigments and paper) and methods as the original. Qiu, however, has departed dramatically from the originals that have inspired him, especially when he emulates Matisse. In his hands, Matisse’s oils on canvases have become ink on paper, and the “Romance of the West Chamber” prints created from carved blocks of wood have become freely interpreted brushed ink on paper. In the Chinese tradition, an inspired and well-executed linmo version of a masterpiece is considered a masterpiece in its own right. The artist’s mental process in understanding, absorbing and emulating the original makes it so. The required technical skills must be present but, most importantly, heightened creativity is a critical and essential part of the process. “Imitating” works in the style of a master (fang) and “copying or emulating” works of a master (linmo) are highly regarded practices. For Qiu Zhenzhong, with his dedication to line and his fascination with its use, the works of Matisse and the woodblock prints of the “Romance of the West Chamber” are merely starting points for the contemporary transformation he seeks. In choosing to work with the masterpieces of established artists, Qiu Zhenzhong takes a strategic approach. By retaining parts of the original compositions, he highlights the intense and major changes that can be created by a contemporary artist. These changes are what Qiu concerns himself with most when addressing the core issue of the art of contemporary Chinese ink painting.

Catherine Maudsley

October, 2012

Catherine Maudsley is an independent scholar with wide-ranging intellectual interests and a multi-faceted career. She is a consultant specialising in Asian art and culture, an educator, author and speaker. Born and raised in Toronto, she studied Chinese language, fine arts, history and culture long before it was fashionable. In 1981, with undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Toronto, where she was a Connaught Research Scholar, she moved to Beijing to attend the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) as a Canada-China Scholar. She pursued her art history studies there, frequently visiting the Palace Museum Collection, and also travelled widely throughout the nation to see Buddhist sites and places of cultural importance. The following year, as a Commonwealth Scholar, she relocated to Hong Kong, which has since been her home. Based in Hong Kong, she closely follows the development of fine arts in China and throughout Asia.


1 Hans Herman Frankel, introduction, translation and commentary, Two Chinese Treatises on Calligraphy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 14 quoted in Michael Knight “Introduction: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy”, Out of Character—Decoding Chinese Calligraphy (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2012), p. 21

2 “Henri Matisse letter to Henry Clifford, Vence, 14 February 1948” in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press: 1968), pp 140–41, quoted in Rita Wong’s essay “Sanyu—a Short Biography” which is available online at

3 The transcribed audio program excerpt is found at

The Matisse holdings at MoMa also include a number of the artist’s figure drawings which demonstrate his mastery of line.

4 For descriptions of the text’s history, creation and conservation, see The Diamond Sutra: The Story of the World’s Earliest Dated Printed Book (London: The British Library, 2010) by Frances Wood, head of the British Library’s Chinese section, and Mark Barnard, the manager of the Conservation section, who was responsible for the sutra’s seven-year conservation treatment.

5 The Chinese text of the drama can be found online at the Gutenberg site and an English-language version is edited and translated with an introduction by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema The Moon and the Zither—The Story of the Western Wing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).