Bamboo in Principle: Ke Jiusi’s (1290-1349) Paintings and Knowledge in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

Leung, Pui Yi 梁佩儀
Supervisor: Dr. R.L. Hammers

This thesis addresses the historical and cultural context of bamboo painting by Ke Jiusi 柯九思 (1290-1349), a famous ink bamboo painter and an art connoisseur at the Yuan (1271-1368) Mongol court. By reassessing the historical significance of bamboo, the status of bamboo painters, and the function of bamboo painting in the Yuan, this thesis seeks to reclaim alternative meanings for bamboo painting.

Traditional scholarship considers bamboo painting as an art with lofty-minded associations for artists to articulate independence from the court. As my research addresses, artists who painted bamboo collaborated with the Mongol imperium. A review indicates that government administrators and emperors valued the materiality and cultural meanings of bamboo. A metaphor for virtue, bamboo represented rulers, aristocrats, scholar officials and military leaders. By the Yuan, bamboo was an established painting subject that experienced stylistical developments and elaborations, that contemporary viewers referred as different schools (pai 派). Combining textural documents and visual materials, this thesis examines the changing meanings of the Huzhou School – a style associated with Wen Tong 文同 (1018-1079) and Li Kan 李衎 (1245-1320). In my interpretation Ke Jiusi sought to promote and perpetuate the new meaning of the Huzhou school through his bamboo painting.

Ke Jiusi responded to and shaped newly developing roles for bamboo in the Yuan. Bamboo became a vehicle for the display of knowledge of the li 理 (universal principle) in Neo-Confucian teachings. Such associations between bamboo and Neo-Confucianist ideas generated shifts in the meanings of bamboo painting and of li. By the Yuan, li in painting stands for the artists’ ability to observe and represent the subject in variations of forms and conditions with descriptive details. The Mongol court had decreed Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) as providing the authoritative interpretations of the Confucian Classics. Consequently artists such as Li Kan and Ke Jiusi applied this philosophy to attaining li through gewu 格物 (investigating things) in bamboo painting. They revitalized the Wen Tong style of naturalistic bamboo. Mongol rulers rewarded these bamboo painters with court positions and celebrated their style as representative of the genuine scholar-officials (zhen shidafu 真士大夫). This fostered a competitive environment among bamboo painters of different styles and we see an increase in artists who were interested in painting the subject bamboo.

Rather than continuing with the present understanding of Chinese literati, artists, and scholar-officials in conflict with the Mongol court, the thesis seeks to regard bamboo painting as an instance, possibly one of many, in which the Mongol imperium and cultural elites collaborated. By analyzing Ke Jiusi’s Bamboo Suite (Zhupu 竹譜), I argue that Ke depicted bamboo in relation to its changing environmental conditions, developing his distinctive style of ink bamboo painting. Through these new formal arrangements, Ke Jiusi positioned himself as the legitimate successor of Wen Tong, and advanced his descriptive and meticulous brushwork as genuinely scholarly.