THE Chinese city of Yangzhou has had a lively history, swinging between good times and bad. Because its location at the confluence of the Yangtze River and the famed Grand Canal was ideally suited to trade and commerce, Yangzhou's merchants flourished. Living in that lovely area, they were naturally sensitive to beauty and luxury, and hence became artistically alert, ready to sponsor the arts. Yangzhou's name comes from the Sui Emperor Yang Kuang, a ruler notorious for his extravagance and love of pleasure. The Sui dynasty was short-lived, and, succeeded by the glorious Tang in 618, a house which endured for three centuries, was not accorded much honor by posterity.
Nevertheless, it was under the Sui (589-617) that a major section of the Grand Canal was dug, at immense human cost, but great subsequent gain. The entire canal stretched 1,000 miles from Tianjin to Hangzhou, allowing easy north-south water traffic in a country whose rivers run east to west. Cargo could pass easily through Yangzhou up to Beijing, which would become the capital. Emperor Yang built wonderful palaces in his city, but when he fell they were destroyed, and the place left in disarray. However , it was rebuilt - its position was too valuable to ignore. Through many hundred years, it knew great prosperity from the trade in silk, tea, and salt (which it was able to control), but suffered corresponding reversals.
In the 18th century, under the Qing Dynasty, Yangzhou had a long period of success, and its merchants were extremely rich. They created splendid establishments, and their gardens were famous throughout China. These were designed to include the willows which grew so beautifully there, the bamboos, and the flowers dear to Chinese artists.
It was this jocund side of Yangzhou the painters liked to emphasize, not the terrible deeds which had destroyed it in the past. For example, during the Tang Dynasty, a period when China's doors were open to the world, Yangzhou had a huge foreign population - thousands of Persians and Arabians, and the waters below the town were full of ships. Many of these traders were slaughtered in the disorders which almost broke the Tangs in the middle of their reign. Life with a foreign flavor ended forever in Yang zhou, though there were other experiences with the outside world afterward, as, for example, during the Mongol occupation. In the 19th century, when the West arrived and the "treaty ports" were created as homes for foreigners, the city suffered a lasting blow, as the great impetus for commerce and trade moved to the coast.
In the 18th century, however, when no one foresaw the arrival of the Occidentals, and when the Emperor Chien Lung of the Qing was enjoying his 60-year reign, another distinction came to the town in the form of independent artists who painted in a free way. Not bound by the traditional forms considered essential at court, they also took a new line economically, insisting that there was no shame in being paid for their work. The prejudice of the country then dictated that a true artist was also a member o f the literati - the scholar-gentry - who never stooped to patronage.
The Yangzhou painters did not live at the capital, preferring the freedom of the provincial city. Versatile and adaptable, they were simultaneously collectors, dealers, seal-cutters, and calligraphers. The merchants commissioned paintings from them and bought what they had. These artists, called the Eccentrics, were productive, diverse, and bold, given to experimentation, not an ordinary trait in that orthodox world, China.
Jin Nong (1687-1764) was one of these Eccentrics; though he had devoted his life to artistic ends, he did not become a painter himself till in his 60s: He was a poet, scholar, calligrapher, collector, and art dealer; he was adept at carving seals and loved inkstones. This last taste, unknown in the West, is easily understood once one has seen the variety and beauty of these objects and realizes their great importance in the life of the scholar and the artist.
Jin Nong's wonderfully alert and commanding cat was painted on an album leaf, in ink on paper with slight touches of color. Though a small format it seems somehow much larger, due to the vitality with which it is endowed. Every stroke of the brush tells; there is not an unnecessary line, from the sparse, lightly indicated bamboos to the sharp ears and long curved tail of the subject. The head and wide haunches are black, and its head is turned to the right, allowing us to see the right eye. Nothing coul d suggest more independence and control than the pose and poise of this splendid creature.
Hua Yan (1682-1765), also associated with the city of Yangzhou, was bold enough to undertake the scene called "Brushfire With Animals Fleeing," ink and colors on paper, which he inscribed with characters saying "Autumn wind fans the wilderness fire." We see the game of the wood running from this danger: a deer and birds, perhaps a wolf, all trying to escape the pall of smoke which billows behind them. This is an entirely unique concept in Chinese painting, and extremely effective. Hua Yan painted many s crolls, and was an excellent artist. He was far from the usual run of Chinese artists, though by temperament and training he was considered a conservative, and was often held to be the most capable and remarkable of all these "wild men" of Yangzhou. His landscapes, especially his pines, were particularly admired.
Gao Fenghan (1685-1748) was one of the first of the Yangzhou painters. He was a calligrapher and a collector, and painted flowers and landscapes. He came from the northern province of Shandong, and took his degree in 1727, becoming a district magistrate in Anhwei, following the honored path of the successful civil servant until disaster overtook him. He was slandered and impeached, and in the course of these miseries lost the use of his right arm.
In spite of the scandal, his reputation seems not really to have suffered, as many vouched for his integrity, and certainly he was courageous.
Using only his left arm and hand he became a well-known artist; he wrote, collected inkstones and wrote commentaries on them, and even managed to cut and inscribe some of these himself.
As a left-handed painter, he worked with broad, soft lines, his conceptions bold, the general effect impressionistic and free. These characteristics are well illustrated in his painting "Chrysanthemums by a Garden Rock," a very agreeable study.