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date: 16 December 2019

Yangzhou schoolfree

  • James Cahill

Term usually applied to a group of artists active in Yangzhou in the 18th century, especially the so-called Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou (Yangzhou baguai). A broader definition would include more conservative and traditional painters active there in the same period, and an earlier group of artists who lived and worked in the city in the late 17th century and early 18th.

Yangzhou had been a prosperous city since the Tang period ( ad 618–907), located as it was near the juncture of the Grand Canal with the Yangzi River. By the late part of the Ming (1368–1644) it was the headquarters of the salt trade, which produced the greatest fortunes the Chinese economy had known. Merchant families of Huizhou, the equally prosperous region in southern Anhui Province, moved to Yangzhou to build garden estates and spend their fortunes in the city, and their patronage drew literary men and artists. Prominent among these patrons were two brothers, Ma Yueguan (1688–1755) and Ma Yuelu (1697–after 1766), cultured men with conservative tastes. Others evidently preferred paintings that did not conform to traditional standards of good taste. Increasingly, and no doubt largely in response to the desires of patrons and market conditions, Yangzhou-school painters abandoned the prestigious styles of the past and turned to subjects and styles that possessed more popular appeal. By the mid-18th century landscape gave way as the favoured subject to figure paintings, including portraits ( see China, People’s Republic of §V 3., (vii), (d) ), bird-and-flower subjects ( see China, People’s Republic of §V 3., (v), (e) ), auspicious and occasional pictures, portrayals of daily life and even low-life scenes. According to a maxim of the time, ‘Portraits [bring] gold, flowers silver; if you want to be a beggar, paint landscapes!’

Painters active in Yangzhou in the Kangxi era (1662–1723) included several native professional masters who worked in conservative styles, for example Yuan Jiang (c. 1680–c. 1755, his close associate Li Yin ( fl c. 1690–1730), Xiao Chen ( fl c. 1680–1720) and Gu Fuzhen (1634–c. 1716). The first two, along with Yuan Jiang’s son (or nephew) Yuan Yao ( fl c. 1740–60), painted large, technically finished landscapes with palaces and figures in styles derived from such Song-period landscapists as Guo Xi and Li Tang. Their works were considered ‘artisan paintings’, and literary contemporaries scarcely noticed them in their writings on art. More prestigious artists active in the same period came there from established artistic centres: Cheng Sui (1605–91) and Zha Shibiao from Anhui, Gong Xian and Daoji from Nanjing. Fang Shishu (1692–1751), the younger son of a salt-merchant family from Shexian in Anhui Province, moved to Yangzhou around 1730 and became a luminary in the Ma brothers’ circle, painting Orthodox-style landscapes ( see also Orthodox school ).

The principal stylistic source for the Yangzhou ‘eccentrics’ was the late style of Daoji . Between his arrival in Yangzhou in 1696 and his death in 1708, he renounced the Buddhist order for secular life and began to paint more prolifically to earn his living. Typical late pictures seem more improvised and quickly executed than his earlier ones. Artists of less technical mastery who tried for the same effects of spontaneity and dash were prone to sloppiness, and Daoji’s influence on the later Yangzhou masters may not have been wholly beneficial. The landscape artist Gao Xiang (1688–1754) studied directly with him, and Chen Zhuan ( fl 1730s–40s), who painted blossoming-plum and other flower subjects, knew and was affected by him. Younger Yangzhou masters had little or no personal contact with Daoji but nonetheless revered and sometimes imitated him— Zheng Xie , in particular, acknowledged him as his master in both calligraphy and painting.

The designation of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou dates only from the late 19th century, and its usefulness has been disputed by scholars who point out that the list of masters varies, that not all the artists came from Yangzhou, that they were not all contemporaries, etc. While all this is true, it is also true that works by these masters exhibit common features of subject and style that differ from those typical of such other groups as the Nanjing, Anhui or Orthodox schools. Furthermore, there were bonds of friendship and mutual influence between most of the artists, and their paintings display a far higher incidence of what can properly be called eccentricity than we find in the output of other schools. This last feature is manifested in their choice of subjects, in the playful or formally distorted treatments of those subjects, in oddly unbalanced compositions and unorthodox manners of brushwork and in brilliant and daringly combined colours that broke the old, fastidious strictures.

While no definitive list of the Eight Eccentrics can be constructed, the following artists are most frequently included. Hua Yan was a versatile and prolific poet and painter born in Fujian and active in Hangzhou as well as Yangzhou. Huang Shen , also from Fujian, was a figure specialist who also did bird-and-flower subjects and occasional landscapes. Li Shan served for a time in the Qing (1644–1911) imperial court, where he learnt bird-and-flower painting in the traditional manner. He later settled in Yangzhou, where he made his living as a professional painter with a loose, calligraphic manner based on the late style of Daoji. Wang Shishen (1686–1759) came from Shexian in Anhui Province and produced blossoming plum pictures with strange compositions and oddly wavering brushlines. Li Fangying (1695–1754) also painted plant subjects in loose brushwork, having turned to painting as a source of income after an unrewarding official career. The most famous member of the Eight Eccentrics was Zheng Xie , who painted only bamboo, orchids and rocks. Jin Nong , from Hangzhou, claimed not to have painted before he was 50. He was the most eccentric of the group, with his crotchety calligraphy and playfully archaistic and amateurish paintings. Luo Ping was Jin Nong’s disciple. Another versatile and technically accomplished master like Hua Yan, he became most renowned for his portrayals of ghosts. Sometimes also included in the group are Gao Fenghan , Min Zhen (1730–after 1788) and Bian Shoumin ( fl 1725–50).

The beginnings of modern Chinese painting can be seen in the achievements of the Yangzhou masters. The artists of the 19th-century Shanghai school are their direct heirs, as are such 20th-century painters as Wu Changshi and Qi Baishi. Their most important contributions included ending the dominance of landscape painting and introducing broader and less disciplined brushwork, bolder colours and ways of painting that allowed wet areas of ink and colour to suffuse and puddle. Most of all, perhaps, they moved from the time-consuming creation of individual paintings for particular patrons and clients to a faster and more repetitive production of pictures for a more popular audience. While this has been a heritage with negative as well as positive aspects, the Yangzhou school itself represents the most innovative and interesting movement in painting after the early Qing period, and paintings of this school remain popular both in China and outside.


  • O. Sirén: Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles (London and New York, 1956–8), v, pp. 235–50
  • W. H. Scott: ‘Yangzhou and its Eight Eccentrics’, Asiat. Stud., 1–2 (1964), pp. 1–19
  • Ju-hsi Chou and C. Brown: The Elegant Brush: Chinese Painting under the Qianlong Emperor, 1735–1795 (Phoenix, 1985)
  • Cheng-chi (Ginger) Hsu: Patronage in the Eighteenth Century Yangzhou School of Painting (diss., Berkeley, CA, U. CA, 1987)
  • The Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou (exh. cat. by V. Giacalone and G. Hsü, New York, China House Gal., 1990)