1863 – 1957
Taken from an original article by Wu Hsiao-ting
In 1863, a boy was born into a destitute peasant family in Xiangtan County, Hunan Province. Nobody could have known that this country boy would grow into such a great painter that even Pablo Picasso would one day say, “I dare not go to China, because there is a Qi Baishi there.”
Picasso lavished this praise on Qi when Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), visited him in Paris in 1956. Picasso also took a pile of Chinese ink paintings he had created in imitation of Qi’s artistic style.
What is the charm of Qi’s paintings that captured the imagination of the Western art master as well as many art lovers around the world? How did a poor farmer’s son, who started out as a carpenter, become a highly venerated maestro? Qi’s story is enlightening not only to aspiring artists, but also to all those who want to make something out of their lives.
Born into the wrong family
Qi was the first child of his family. He had six brothers and three sisters. His family owned only a small piece of land that produced far from enough to feed them, so his grandfather and father had to do odd jobs here and there to scrape out a living.
It would have been impossible for him to go to school were it not for his maternal grandfather, who ran a small private school not far from the boy’s home. Without having to pay any tuition, Qi happily went to school when he was eight.
His grandfather taught the students to write by copying Chinese characters in a copybook. Sometimes when Qi got tired of the monotonous copying work, he would begin to draw. His drawings of things he saw in his daily life – an old man fishing, flowers, frogs, or cows – fascinated his classmates, who came one after another to ask for his vivid creations. Not long afterwards, when his grandfather found out what he had been doing, he scolded the boy for wasting precious paper on meaningless doodling. After that, Qi could only draw secretly on rough wrapping paper.
The Autumn came. The poor harvest that year aggravated the already poor financial situation of the family. Qi had no choice but to quit school and stay at home to help chop firewood, plant vegetables, and graze cattle. Although his schooling ended prematurely, he did not put his books aside. He always carried a book with him to study whenever he went to the mountains to graze cattle. Afraid that he would pay too much attention to reading and neglect his duties, his grandmother reproached him, “Can you keep your stomach full with your pen and book? Our family needs food, not paintings… Alas! It’s a pity that you were born into the wrong family.”
Because Qi had been fragile since he was born, his family knew that it was out of the question for him to become a farmer. When he reached fifteen, his father apprenticed him to a carpenter, Chi Chang-ling, in the hope that he could at least learn “something useful” to help provide for the family. One day when Qi and his master were returning home from work, they met three men on the road carrying wooden boxes and sacks containing saws, drills and the like. Looking at the tools, Qi knew that these men must be carpenters too. To his surprise, his master smiled and greeted them with a high degree of respect, while the three men, haughty and arrogant, barely paid any attention to him. After they had walked away, Qi asked his master, “We are carpenters and they are carpenters too, so why did you behave so respectfully towards them?” The master answered with a serious tone, “What do you know? We make big furniture, which requires little skill, while they produce refined woodwork with intricate carving skills. Unless you are really smart, it is impossible to learn their artistry. Although we are all in the same line of work, we are much lower than they in terms of social rank. That’s why I show such reverence for them.” After hearing what his master said, Qi secretly made a resolution: “I don’t believe I can’t do what they can. One day I will become a woodcarver too.”
After learning carpentry for a year, Qi fulfilled his dream. Carpentry is a physically demanding job – young Qi often found it hard to carry heavy timber and erect large wooden frameworks. Worried that the strenuous work would worsen his delicate health, his family agreed to let him learn to become a woodcarver. Chou Chih-mei, a famous local woodcarver, accepted him as his pupil. Chou was a patient and enthusiastic teacher, and he taught Qi everything he knew. He soon found to his delight that his student was both diligent and talented. After a three year apprenticeship, Qi not only mastered the craft, but even surpassed his master in skill. In addition to the regular carving patterns and designs often seen at that time, he created many new designs which gained great popularity among his clients.
One day at the home of one of his clients, Qi came upon a book on painting which demonstrated how to complete a painting from beginning to end and contained a comprehensive series of flowers, rocks, figures and other motifs. Elated at finding this invaluable treasure, he industriously copied and recopied the whole series. The book initiated him into the world of Chinese ink painting and imbued in him a rudimentary knowledge of brush technique and composition. From then on, he diligently practiced painting in his spare time. His clients eventually found out that he could paint too, and they asked him to paint for them. That was how he began to create paintings, mostly of folk deities and portraits, for his clients. At that time, he only took painting as a means to supplement his meagre income as a woodcarver. Little did he know that he would one day be lauded as “the first great master of the Chinese art world in 300 years.”
More of Qi Baishi’s biography will be published in Part 2, coming soon…