Ren Bonian’s Zhong Kui Paintings

Luk, Yu Ping 陸於平
2004
Supervisor: Prof. Q.L. Wan and Prof. David Clarke

Ren Bonian (1840-1895), a leading painter of nineteenth century Shanghai, was well known for his technical skill and versatility. Among the wide range of subject matter that he mastered in his career, he showed particular interest in the subject of Zhong Kui, the queller of demons in Chinese folklore. Ren painted Zhong Kui repeatedly throughout his career with considerable variety and invention. More than forty works are known, making it his most repeated figure painting subject.

The four chapters in the thesis consider Ren’s Zhong Kui paintings from different angles. The thesis begins by examining the features of Ren’s Zhong Kui paintings first in terms of style, then the representation of the deity. The artist shows considerable familiarity with the conventions of the subject, while his works are distinguished by clever manipulation of compositional elements to generate visual interest as well as ease in the adaptation of a variety of sources, both past and present. The thesis goes on the consider Ren’s Zhong Kui paintings in relation to the continued belief in the deity in the nineteenth century. It is found that the works are directly connected, in their dating and visual elements, to the popular custom of displaying Zhong Kui images to expel evil around the fifth lunar month. The ready demand for such images following seasonal practices presents a significant reason for the artist’s repeated painting of the subject. The final chapter of the thesis discusses the trends in nineteenth century Zhong Kui paintings, notably the use of the subject for satire and social criticism. It argues that such meanings are not a major concern in Ren’s depictions of the deity. Instead, the artist presents Zhong Kui in a largely sympathetic light as a humanised figure – a manner of portrayal that would have lasting influence on later representations of the subject.