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date: 16 December 2019

Zheng Xie [Cheng Hsieh; zi Kerou; hao Banqiao, Pan-ch’iao] free

(b Xinghua, Jiangsu Province, 1693; d 1765).
  • Ju-Hsi Chou
  • , revised by Michael J. Hatch

Chinese painter, calligrapher, and poet. Equally known as Zheng Banqiao, Zheng Xie was, together with Jin Nong, the most prominent of the group of painters later referred to as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou (see Yangzhou school). He grew up with little means and had to sell his family library to pay for his father’s funeral. Taking work as a private tutor in 1718 at the age of 25, he started a small family in the suburbs of Yangzhou, only to see his wife and son die by 1731. He subsequently achieved some success in the official civil service examinations and twice obtained appointments as a district magistrate in Shandong Province from 1742 to 1753. A brief encounter in 1748 on Mt. Tai, Shandong, with the Qianlong emperor (reg 1736–1796) won him the coveted title of Official Calligrapher and Painter (shuhuashi), for which he had a seal carved to commemorate the event. The end of his official career came in 1753, following a charge of corruption.

After his retirement Zheng Xie led a comfortable life in his hometown of Xinghua, thanks in part to farming revenue from the land he acquired with his official income. Famously, he also openly sold his paintings and calligraphy by posting a price list which set the cost of commissioned works by size. The list further discouraged any pretenses of literati exchange by explicitly denying customers the right to negotiate with him and by designating that payment be in cash rather than allowing for the more gentlemanly habit of offering gifts or food for paintings. This list seems to contradict earlier comments of disdain toward for-profit painting by educated men, but can be seen as part of Zheng’s fluid manipulation of multiple identities. His bold attitudes were often humorous and unorthodox, but he was also very principled. By flaunting commercial interests, he openly acknowledged the blurring of social boundaries between merchant and official classes that others politely ignored. A frequent visitor to the neighboring commercial center of Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, he became inextricably bound up with its literary and artistic circles. His fame there endured so that even after his death the possession of a painting or piece of calligraphy by him was considered to be a social prerequisite.

Zheng Xie is known primarily as a calligrapher and also for a limited range of painting themes, chiefly bamboo, orchids, and rocks, and chrysanthemums. Although he sold his paintings as a younger man, few of his early works survive, and the majority of his extant works are dated after his retirement in 1753. While acknowledging his debt to Xu Wei, Daoji, and Gao Qipei, three of the most uninhibited artists in the history of Chinese painting, Zheng Xie nonetheless refused to work within the parameters that they set, as demonstrated by the screen painting Ink Bamboo (1753; Tokyo, N. Mus.) and the set of four hanging scrolls entitled Misty Bamboo on a Distant Mountain. These works possess a formidable presence, at once bold, structured, poignant, and luminous, and they represent a new achievement in the art of bamboo painting. Such large, expressive works had few equals before or after, not even among Zheng Xie’s later paintings. These late works display a reductive approach, in which the artist pares all the elements down to the bare bones; there any concern for representation gives way to the sheer impetuosity of the brushstrokes. Such stylistic traits helped to establish his reputation as an eccentric and bold painter. One possibility for this reductive brushwork may be as a result of Zheng’s commercialism and ever-increasing rate of production. Another possibility is to see them as an extension of his interests in the bold features of archaic early styles of calligraphy, which were often studied from rubbings of stone monuments from the Han dynasty.

Zheng’s penchant for integrating calligraphy with painting to an extent previously unknown is seen in Ink Bamboo. The writing closely borders the bamboo cluster, asserts itself in the pictorial space, and sets its own distinctive rhythm against the surging growth of the stems and leaves. In another painting, Cymbidiums, Bamboo, and Fungi Growing from Rocks (1761; San Francisco, CA, Asian A. Mus.), the calligraphy is placed within the form of the rocks and is enclosed by them, so that, visually, it functions not in isolation, but is an integral part of the composition.

In his calligraphy Zheng created a distinct style by combining combined the running cursive (xingcao) script with bafen (“eight tenths”) style, a sophisticated form of Han Dynasty clerical script (lishu; see China, People’s Republic of §IV 2., (vii)). This he named, albeit facetiously, liufenban (“six and a half tenths”). Such efforts to create signature stylistic features helped Zheng Xie’s work stand out in the highly saturated art market of Yangzhou, where individualism and eccentricity were highly valued. Zheng Xie’s writings were noted in his later life and after his death for their insights into his creative process as well as their social commentary and criticism. A volume of his painting inscriptions, Banqiao tihua (“Inscriptions on paintings by Banqiao”), was collected and edited posthumously by an admirer, Qi Yu. Another compilation, Zheng Banqiao ji (“Collected works of Zheng Banqiao”), comprises anthologies of his regular (shi) and irregular (ci) verses, his lyrics (daoqing), and a selection of letters to family members. Published between 1742 and 1749, these were written in his own inimitable calligraphy and cut into woodblocks by his follower, Situ Wengao. His various collected writings reveal a personality that was at once outspoken, individualist, humorous, and principled.

Paradoxically, Zheng Xie blended a libertine lifestyle with a homespun, Confucian morality and saw little conflict between them. He was cast as an eccentric due to his penchant for mixing with groups as varied as Chan Buddhist monks, Manchu guards, and imperial scions as well as for his uninhibited venting of opinions and his poems about male love interests. His acerbic wit, unconventional behavior and compassion for the downtrodden, together with his artistic achievements, distinguished him as a figure of great renown.

Writings

  • Zheng Banqiao quan ji [Complete Collected Works of Zheng Banqiao], edited by Bian Xiaoyi. Jinan, 1985.

Bibliography

  • Wang Huai. Zheng Banqiao pingzhuan [Critical biography of Zheng Xie]. Taipei, n.d.
  • Qi Yu. “Banqiao tihua” [Inscriptions on paintings by Zheng Xie]. In Meishu congshu [General collection of works on art], vol. 16/2, pp. 125–146. Taipei, 1947.
  • “Hachidai Sanjin, Yoshu hakkei” [Bada Shanren and the Yangzhou school]. In Suiboku bijutsu taikei [A survey of ink painting], vol. 11, pp. 60–70. Tokyo, 1978.
  • Wang Jiansheng. Zheng Banqiao yanjiu [A study of Zheng Xie]. Taipei, 1979.
  • Yang Xin. Yangzhou baguai [The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou]. Beijing, 1981.
  • Huang Miaozi. “Banqiao yu Wei Xian” [Zheng Xie and Wei Xian]. Meishujia [Artist] (1982), vol. 25, pp. 68–71; vol. 26, pp. 70–73.
  • Zhou Jiyin. “Zheng Banqiao huihua zuopin nianbiao” [A chronological list of Zheng Xie’s paintings]. In Meishu zhongheng, vol. 1. Nanjing, 1982.
  • Zhou Jiyin. Zheng Banqiao shuhua yishu [The art of Zheng Xie’s painting and calligraphy]. Tianjin, 1982.
  • Pan Mao. Zheng Banqiao. Shanghai, 1983.
  • Xue Zhenguo and others. “Zheng Banqiao and the Shi Clan of Yangchen.” Meishu Yanjiu 4 (1984): 84–85.
  • Ju-hsi Chou and Brown, C. The Elegant Brush: Chinese Painting under the Qianlong Emperor, 1735–1795. Phoenix, 1985.
  • Cheung, Anthony and Gurofsky, Paul. Cheng Pan-ch’iao—Selected Poems, Calligraphy, Paintings, and Seal Engravings. Hong Kong, 1987.
  • Pohl, Karl-Heinz. Cheng Pan-ch’iao: Poet, Painter, and Calligrapher. Nettetal, 1990.
  • Yang Shilin. Zheng Banqiao zhuan—cong jueding congming dao nande hutu [A biography of Zheng Banqiao—from extreme intelligence to rare befuddlement]. Taipei, 1993.
  • Zhou Jiyin. Ming Qing Zhongguo hua dashi yanjiu congshu: Zheng Banqiao [Great Figures of Ming and Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting Research Collection—Zheng Banqiao]. Changchun, 1996.
  • Cheng-chi Hsu, Ginger. A Bushel of Pearls: Painting for Sale in Eighteenth-Century Yangchow. Stanford, 2001.
  • Jin Shiqiu. Zheng Banqiao yu fojiao chanzong [Zheng Banqiao and the Chan School of Buddhism]. Beijing, 2001.
  • Wang Tongshu. Zheng Xie ping zhuan [A Critical Biography of Zheng Xie]. Nanjing, 2002.
  • Zheng Banqiao Shuhua ji [Collected Paintings and Calligraphy of Zheng Banqiao], 2 vols. Beijing, 2003.
  • Dang Mingfang. Zheng Banqiao Nianpu [Chronology of Zheng Banqiao]. Beijing, 2009.