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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

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 referred to as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou ( see Yangzhou school ). Although orphaned, he subsequently achieved some success in the official civil service examinations and obtained appointments as a local magistrate in Shandong Province. A brief encounter in 1748 on Mt Tai, Shandong, with the Qianlong emperor (reg 1736–96) 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 1753 Zheng Xie led a comfortable life in Xinghua, thanks to his past land acquisitions, farming revenue and commissions from painting and calligraphy. To avoid unnecessary bargaining with his patrons, he posted his famous and highly unorthodox price list, which set the cost of commissioned works by size and at the same time discouraged bargain-hunters and those intent on socializing. A frequent visitor to the neighbouring commercial centre of Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, which he had known in his youth, 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 for a limited range of painting themes, chiefly bamboo, orchids, and rocks and chrysanthemums. Few of his early works survive; of those that are extant the majority are dated after 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 apex 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. This phenomenon may be attributed to Zheng’s ever-increasing rate of production, as demands made by his admirers drained not only his energy but also inspiration.

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 combined the running cursive (xingcao) script with bafen (‘eight tenths’) style, a sophisticated form of clerical script (lishu; see China, People’s Republic of §IV 2., (vii) ). This he named, albeit facetiously, liufenban (‘six and a half tenths’). Praise was heaped on his inscriptions on paintings not only for their calligraphic merit and because they shed light on the creative process, but also because they opened up new possibilities for social comment and criticism. A volume of such inscriptions, Banqiao tihua (‘Inscriptions on paintings by Banqiao’), was 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.

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. His acerbic wit, unconventional behaviour and compassion for the downtrodden, together with his artistic achievements, made him a legendary figure.

Writings

  • Qi Yu: ‘Banqiao tihua’ [Inscriptions on paintings by Zheng Xie], Meishu congshu [General collection of works on art] (Taipei, 1947), 16/2, pp. 125–46
  • Zheng Banqiao ji [Collected works of Zheng Banqiao] (Shanghai, 1983)

Bibliography

  • Wang Huai: Zheng Banqiao pingzhuan [Critical biography of Zheng Xie] (Taipei, n.d.)
  • ‘Hachidai Sanjin, Yoshu hakkei’ [Bada Shanren and the Yangzhou school], Suiboku bijutsu taikei [A survey of ink painting], 11 (Tokyo, 1978), pp. 68–70
  • Wang Jiansheng: Zheng Banqiao yanjiu [A study of Zheng Xie] (Taipei, 1979)
  • Yang Xin: Yangzhou baguai [The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou] (Beijing, 1981)
  • Zhou Jiyin: ‘Zheng Banqiao huihua zuopin nianbiao’ [A chronological list of Zheng Xie’s paintings], Meishu zhongheng, 1 (Nanjing, 1982)
  • Huang Miaozi: ‘Banqiao yu Wei Xian’ [Zheng Xie and Wei Xian], Meishujia [Artist], 25 (1982), pp. 68–71; xxvi, pp. 70–73
  • 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), pp. 84–5
  • Ju-hsi Chou and C. Brown: The Elegant Brush: Chinese Painting under the Qianlong Emperor, 1735–1795 (Phoenix, 1985)