CRITIQUES – Kwok Kian Chow

Fan Chang Tien: The Literati Gardener

Founding Director of the Singapore Art Museum and the National Art Gallery

Kwok Kian Chow


The 20th-century literati painter Fan Chang Tien’s life was underpinned by two ethos – nurturing younger artists, and furthering the literati tradition.

Fan thought himself a ‘Gardener’ (his zi, a sobriquet), and his life revolved around art education. Besides founding an art society and art school, he taught extensively at various other art schools, teachers’ training colleges, and secondary schools in Chaozhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. However, his students who became the most acclaimed artists were those whom he taught in his own studio.

Fan was an artist before all else. Although he took on the roles of village mayor, fundraiser, school principal, among others at certain points in his life, he was most at ease as a full time painter, art mentor and adviser. As he said, ‘My love for painting and poetry unwavering and natural; treasure the past and present subjects equally’ (1980, see page 92); ‘streams of new cool breeze into the old studio drifted ... later waving banner of green plantain leaf appeared, fresh young shoots springing up, continuity ensured’ (1982, see page 250).

The Literati

The conventional ideal of the literati requires an artist to be a scholar-official in profession, and an ‘amateur’ of art practice in leisure – a distinction meant to differentiate him from a professional painter of the court at the time. The intention was to acclaim the professional painter for his illustration and liberal use of colours, in contrast to abstraction and visual simplicity in the case of the ‘amateur’. While attempts to form such distinctions appear misguided, it is useful to Chinese art history – but only in the most ironic way – for it is the ‘amateur’ whose works eventually evolved to represent mainstream high art.

When we look at Fan’s art practices, we can trace much of the philosophical outlook and aesthetic values grounded in centuries of art development in China. We see how some of these fundamentals unfolded in the 20th century in Fan’s home town in the Lingdong region (he was an early proponent of the Lingdong School of art); Bangkok, where Fan would sojourn; and Singapore, where Fan spent the latter half of his life.

Arguably the most significant Chinese ink painting mentor in Singapore art history, Fan taught a generation of prominent ink painters including Ling Cher Eng (1940–1995), Chua Ek Kay (1947–2008), Chuan Keng Boon (1953– 2010), Henri Chen Kezhan, Lee Soo Chee, Lim Kay Hiong, Low Eng, Nai Swee Leng, Ong Kok Bok, Poh Beng Pow, Tan Siow Aik, and the Auckland-based Wong Pik Wan. In 1998, the Singapore Art Museum organized Fan Chang Tien: His Art & Passion, the only exhibition it organized on an art mentor and the group of prominent artists who studied under him. Fan’s work was driven by the literati spirit, which he had adapted for the context of the 20th century.

Even in its early years, the literati tradition recognized that art should be about the deliberation and articulation of a realm beyond the practical and social concerns of the day. While the idea of transcendence existed in many historical art cultures, the Chinese formulated the philosophical foundation for such a value more than a thousand years ago, in the 11th century, with the art and writings of paragons such as Su Dongpo (1037–1101) and Wen Tong (1019–1079). Fan Chang Tien reverberated their aesthetics.

Literati art embraced the philosophical discourse of yi, 意, ‘higher order thought’, which held that truth transcended our everyday concerns and experiences, and one had to venture into the realm of ideas to find it. However, yi also encompassed a kind of self- awareness, about the limitations of ideas alone, and the limitations of any form of art, be it painting, calligraphy or poetry, in singularly apprehending truth. The term xieyi (painting/ writing the yi), which became somewhat synonymous with ink painting in the 20th century, originated from this.

To cultivate yi, one had to integrate its philosophy into his or her life wholly – from the practice of multiple forms of art (painting, calligraphy, writing and often seal-carving), to intellectual pursuits (history, philosophy and literature), to the rarely discussed aspect of teaching. This was probably what Fan’s

teacher Wang Geyi (1897–1988) meant when he described Fan’s art practices as yilu yehe shishuhua (一炉冶合诗书画), smelting in one pot – the poetry, the calligraphy and the painting.’ Yi was more of an in-between, in both materialistic and conceptual terms; and yi also strove for the middle ground between work and leisure, social and personal space, pragmatism and the transcendental, and officialdom and reclusiveness.

The ideal literati artist lived in perpetual duality – concerned with officialdom in their professional lives, and finding meaning in their personal lives as artist-poets. They led reclusive lives outside their jobs, if not physically then at least mentally. They drew inspiration from the landscapes, flora and fauna – the so-called ‘unison of Nature and man’ (天人合一). They never allowed everyday, pragmatic matters to interlace with this higher order of existence. This is frequently reflected in Fan’s writings – “All seasons waterfalls roaring, unconstrained; poets and scholars admiring, unrestrained; away from the hurly-burly of worldly gains, inspiration for verses of poetry reigns” (1956, see page 76).

During the Ming Dynasty, Dong Qichang (1555–1636) institutionalized literati art under the name of the Southern School, in contrast to the Northern School, which represented court or professional art. During the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu ruler facilitated an amalgamation of the two schools for reasons of political consolidation. Eventually, the Southern School evolved to underpin Chinese art practice – both the new Orthodox School represented by Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715), who was regarded as a literati artist, and the so-called Individualists like Shitao (1642–1707) and Zhu Da (1626– 1705), who would be revered by the Shanghai School as the direct forerunners of the 19th and 20th century literati art.

Notwithstanding the complex historical about the literati, which elucidates what it means trajectories, we can glean a set of fundamentals to be a literati artist in the 20th century, and which explicates Fan Chang Tien’s philosophical and aesthetic context.

Firstly, there is the notion of being independent, as opposed to being defined or limited by the institution. Secondly, art education and learning needs to be holistic, involving neither just technique mastery, nor conceptual thinking, but the in-between spaces. Thirdly, self- cultivation involves the integration of different forms of art, such as painting, calligraphy, and poetry. Fourthly, it is important to learn from both knowledge and tradition, as well as Nature and the inner self, hence individuality. This is perhaps the most important lesson of art history, from Tang Dynasty art theorist Guo Ruoxu, to Su Dongpo, to Dong Qichang, to Shitao. For Fan, this individuality was extended to individual creative expression, a principle that was particularly emphasized in his mentorship to younger artists, extending his self-cultivation to cultivation through teaching.

The Shanghai School,
the Lingdong and Singapore

During the 18th and 19th century, Chinese art practice was influenced by three new factors. These were the art market, the techniques of Western representational art, and art in the context of the modern city. From the late 19th century onwards, modern art education gained immense popularity. The interplay between Western influences and the literati tradition could be seen in the contrasts between the Shanghai School, the Lingnan School and the Lingdong School, which manifested very starkly in Singapore.

The Shanghai School was the 20th century heir to Literati art. It broadly refers to the painting style that developed in Shanghai in the mid-19th century, heavily influenced by the literati tradition. Wu Changshuo (1844– 1927), regarded as a paragon of the Shanghai School, took the xieyi literati painting to new heights by integrating new brushwork and design sensibilities through archaic epigraphic calligraphic tradition and everyday subject matter in the city setting. Regarded as modernity in Chinese art, the Shanghai School is a rendition of traditional literati art, incorporating the flora and fauna into everyday human settings, while still emphasising the expressive brushwork.

The Lingnan School refers to a specific Guangzhou-based art movement led by Gao Jianfu (1879–1951). Also known as Xinguohua New Chinese Painting, the Lingnan School was influenced by Western representational art and Japanese Nihonga (Gao studied in Japan from 1907–1908, and could have been influenced by the writings of Okakura Kakuzo). As the name ‘New Chinese Painting’ suggests, the Lingnan School incorporated modern subject matter and took on a nationalist zeal in the context of the ‘newness’ of Chinese political discourse in the 1910s and 1920s. Although the Shangai School also incorporated elements of Japanese and Western art, given the opening up of Shanghai for international trading in the aftermath of the Opium War, the Shanghai School was much closer to the impressionistic and expressive styles of Shitao and Zhu Da. In contrast, the Lingnan School emphasized colour, and tended towards realism and icons of modernity.

The broader Lingnan region, however, refers to the south of the Wuling east-west oriented mountain range, including Guangdong and Guangxi, parts of Hunan and Jiangxi, and importantly, Jieyang and Shantou. Jieyang and Shantou, along with Chaozhou (the city), are the main cities of the Chaozhou (Teochew), a cultural group in the eastern part of the Guangdong province and the western part of Fujian province with its own dialect. The Chaozhou has a strong literati tradition. Even in the 19th century, many retired officials explored literati painting, and their works had very strong literati traits. In the early 20th century, art students from the Chaozhou region travelled to Shanghai, then the art centre of China, to study in several new schools there.

Fan Chang Tien, himself born into a well- to-do family of mid-level landowners in Jieyang, had the luxury to immerse himself in art from a young age. He graduated from the Teacher’s Training College for Art in Shantou in 1923, and enrolled in the Xinhua Art College in Shanghai in 1923. After graduation, he further enrolled in Changming Professional Art College after graduation, where the Shanghai School masters Wang Yiting (1867–1938) and Wang Geyi were teaching.

Due to the differences in the cultural and geographical meanings of Lingnan, Lingnan art was used as a rather flexible category. It often encroached upon the works of the Teochew, which were much closer to the Shanghai School. Fan’s own paintings were featured in an art publication popularly circulated in Shantou known as A Collection of Lingnan Paintings in around 1927, even before he returned from Shanghai to the Chaozhou region.

This led Fan to found a Lingdong School of art in the 1930s as a separate identity and counterpoint to the Lingnan School, contrasting dong (east) with nan (south). He established the Yitao Painting Society in Shantou in 1931, and further set up the Yinghuang Art School in Tuojiang. Besides Fan, the Chaozhou art circle also included the artists Sun Peigu, Huang Shiting and Gao Zhengzhi and Sun Xingge.

In the context of the 20th century, xieyi becomes a useful term to highlight some of the dispositions of ink painting versus that of other painting traditions and aesthetic values: abstraction over realism, expressive over descriptive, brushwork over illustration, and calligraphic over pictorial. The term was already emphasized in the Shanghai School, invoking a stylistic genealogy from the 11th century literati painter Mi Fu (1051–1107), to Shitao and Zhu Da, and to Wu Changshuo, the indirect predecessor of Fan Chang Tien.

While the stylistic characteristics that differentiate the Lingdong School and the Shanghai School have yet to be clearly defined, Chua Ek Kay observed that, as least where Fan is concerned, even during his Shanghai period, Fan, ‘believed in observing Nature, to reconcile his own feelings with the world of visual reality... he employed some brisk and spry brushwork instead of those archaic like brushwork which were largely practised by many artists at that time.’ This was how Fan Chang Tien furthered the naturalist tendency beyond the foundation of the Shanghai School.

Literati art took root in Singapore in the latter half of the 19th century, when there was a large immigration of Chinese to Singapore. Many civil societies were established alongside the expansion of the Chinese population, such as clan associations and community schools. These organisations soon incorporated literary and arts activities. Recent research by Yeo Mang Thong has established that the literati tradition was weaved into the calligraphy and seals used for signage and certification.2 Khoo Seok Wan (Qiu Shuyuan), an important cultural promoter, supported calligraphy and painting by inviting Chinese artists to Singapore, and promoting literati pursuits and commercial services concurrently. Khoo also published his personal collection of calligraphy. Such were the beginnings of fine arts activities in Singapore, and painters and calligraphers from not only China, but also Korea and Japan, visited Singapore in the late 19th century.

The Lingnan School was also represented in Singapore, starting with the visit and exhibition by Gao Jianfu in 1930. When Fan held his first exhibition in Singapore in 1956, Ma Ge (Marco Hsu) commented that it was refreshing to see how the works of the Lingdong School differed.

Fan was very much a part of what Teo Han Wue calls the ‘Teochew phenomenon’ in the Singapore art circle. Apart from the large number of artists who are Teochew, the three best known art collectors in Singapore are also Teochew: Low Chuck Tew, Tan Tsze Chor, and Yong Khee Leng (Teo, 2002)5. It is important to see the dynamics of the various ink aesthetic orientations in the context of dialectal group culture and the visual art scene in Singapore.

The Gardener

Seeing himself as a “Gardener”, Fan Chang Tien upheld cultivation – a literati dictum – in the all senses of the word: education, motivation and actual horticulture; Fan personally planted some 20 species of bamboo in his garden. Fan is best known as a painter of bamboo. He was already well known for his bamboo painting in the 1930s and 1940s, and many have compared his bamboos with those of Zheng Banqiao (1693–1765), the 18th century Yangzhou master of bamboo painting. Fan, however, painted the bamboo with a greater degree of naturalism, while retaining the brush virtuosity of the literati.

When Zhang Daqian met Fan in Bangkok in 1954, he inscribed on one of Fan’s bamboos: ‘As ancient saying goes, “When in peace and happiness, you paint the orchid; When feeling indignant then, you paint the bamboo.” This bamboo plant is rattling under the wind, coming from the wrist of Chang Tien, with the unseen force of his brush. The bamboo painting was shown to me by Chang Tien – my fellow painter’ (1954, see page 120).

Bamboo, venerated for its strength and vitality, symbolizes courage and righteousness for the literati. The monochromatic bamboo on paper was also regarded as the closest form of painting to calligraphy, drawing on the Chinese belief that painting and writing are fundamentally derived from the same artistic source (further reinforced by the ideographical nature of the Chinese character). The literati saw the monochromatic bamboo as the bridge between the two. It may thus be regarded as the most vital rendition of xieyi.

Ma Ge noted that Fan’s bamboo was different from that of Zheng Banqiao’s, not only in its naturalism, but also in how it celebrated Nature6. Bamboo was a perennial theme in Fan’s painting throughout his artistic career. It was a metaphorical connection between places and phases, such as in a poem Fan wrote in his 70s, on the nostalgia of his home village: ‘still hunger for the bamboo at the old village of mine, their delicate texture by the rugged rock excites my mind; such feelings and conditions difficult to translate, like small rain drizzles on fine days to differentiate’ (1983, see page 158).

For Fan, bamboo also connected the different phases of his life. It vindicated his attempts to pass on the literati tradition in his travels. He wrote that, ‘for many years searching over dales and hills, green bamboo shy orchids my favourite field; who says they can’t be found in southern ground? Look again there are good samples around.’ (1965, see page 125). In the following decade he noted, ‘gentle breeze rustles the bamboo by the rock’s front, lifted to the southern soil for easy transplant; vying not for any colour or lustre, but support and affection finds the settler’ (1974, see page 127).

Fan also thought himself a gardener in terms of his passion for art instruction. He preferred to teach privately, especially during his time in Singapore. His method of tutelage stemmed from the literati tradition’s fundamental aesthetic value of non-institutionality. Fan’s time in Singapore as an educator was so successful that he virtually mentored an entire generation of highly accomplished modern and contemporary ink painters. Fan’s achievements beseech us to re-think the differences between private and institutional art education – although such a debate already existed in mid- century China, between the Xu Beihong and Pan Tianshou methods, representing institutionality in the sense of a structured syllabus in modern art education, and non-institutionality in the traditional literati art instruction (although attempts were made to incorporate this in an art school setting).

While the art academy in China may be traced back to the early 12th century, modern art education in China evolved largely from the modern education syllabus in Western art, which also oriented towards science and technical education. In the 18th century, there was a wave of art apprenticeship in Western- style religious-themed art and export art. A second wave occurred in the aftermath of the Opium War, when coastal trading ports opened up, and the first modern Western-style art school was opened by Joannes Ferrer in 1847 in Shanghai. Elements of Western art education were eventually incorporated into China’s formal education syllabus, where art was introduced as a technical subject. This subject gained immense popularity, as seen from the establishment of specialized art teachers’ training institutes. Such was the background of Fan’s early art education in the art teachers’ training institute.

Within a decade of the introduction of art into the formal syllabus, private art schools started appearing in Shanghai. The first of these, known later as the Shanghai Oil Painting Academy, was established in 1911 by Zhou Xiang, who studied art in the Tushanwan Catholic Church Art School in Xujiahui established by Ferrer. The Shanghai Pictorial (Visual) Art School was established in 1912 by Liu Haisu (1896–1994) at the age of 17, who famously said, ‘We do not have much knowledge; but we have great confidence and sincerity in the research and promotion (of art)’7. Such were the fervent years of enthusiasm for

art both Chinese, as seen through the popularity of the Shanghai School, and Western, as in the proliferation of modern art education. This, and the rapidly changing landscape of political and cultural discourse in the year leading towards the May Fourth Movement, along with the advent of modern print and photography media brought about a great surge for pictorial production and consumption on the whole.

Shanghai was the magnet of the Chinese art world for the full spectrum of art concerns and practices it offered, from the Shanghai School to education to modernity, attracting artists and art students from all over China. There were some 80 students and artists from the Chaozhou region alone who studied art in Shanghai during this time.

Fan had an early start in art education studies, undertaking his first formal art school education at the Shantou Teachers’ Training College for Art, as previously mentioned, where he graduated at a young age of around 17. The Changming Art School which Fan attended between 1929 and 1931 was an ink painting focused art school established with Wu Changshuo’s estate and in accordance with Wu’s vision in the furthering of ink painting instruction. Changming was established by Wang Yiting and Pan Tianshou8. Fan also received instruction by Wang Geyi there.

With the advent of modern art education, there were issues of how ink painting fitted into the new syllabus and learning framework. Xu Beihong’s institutional method represented the realist school of thought, emphasizing drawing as the foundation even for ink painting. In the opposing camp, Pan Tianshou’s non- institutional method insisted on the traditional edification of building up the foundation through the total art practice of painting, calligraphy, seal-carving and poetry, which was more appropriate for ink painting.

While Fan taught art at Chung Cheng High School and Whampoa Secondary School during his initial years in Singapore, he shifted to teaching from home in 1968. This gave him much more control over his teaching. He combined the literati method of painting after old masterpieces with sketching from real life to further observational skills, and encouraging students’ personal interpretation and experimentation all at the same time. He would conduct a critique session at each class to discuss the quality of the composition and the brushwork in relation to creative interpretations of the old masters as well as the observation and experience of life object.

A highly successful ‘gardener’, Fan points to deeper tensions between modern institutional art education and the literati tradition, given the latter’s emphasis on brushwork, expression, all-round ability in painting, calligraphy and literature, and individualistic creativity. A foundation in art history and individualistic creativity are both key, as Pan Shou’s citation of a quote by Wang Yiting, ‘I am the host to the sages of the past who are the guests’, while sharing his thoughts on Fan’s art9. (Pan Shou 1995).

Art was the one constant in Fan Chang Tien’s life, as the artist frequently noted in the colophons in his landscape painting such as, ‘sounds of rippling streams and birds heard clearly; day after day doing paintings diligently’ (1977, see page 110); ‘The geese took a long flight from far north, with their feathers laced with cold frosts; loud quacking in this warm and sunny land, was muted with no one to comprehend’ (1980, see page 217). Literati art remains an appropriate description of Fan’s art in all of the manifestations above.