Ch'i Pai-shih (1863-1957) was one of the greatest Chinese painters of modern times. He led the revival of the traditional Chinese style of painting.
Ch'i Pai-shih, also called Ch'i Heng and Ch'i Weich'ing, was born on a small farm near Hsiang-t'an, Hunan Province. His family was very poor, and the young boy was unable to obtain normal schooling. When Ch'i was 6 or 7, his grandfather, writing with fire tongs in the ashes of the stove, began teaching the boy characters. Aware of his desire to study, his mother carefully saved their meager resources and when he was 9 managed to send him to the village school run by her father. In less than a year, however, Ch'i was needed on the farm and had to leave school.
In order to continue his studies, Ch'i would hang a book from the horns of the water buffalo he tended and read in the fields. Ch'i also began painting at this time. By the age of 12 it was clear that the boy was too frail and weak for farm life, and he was apprenticed to a carpenter, progressing by age 15 from rough work to fine woodwork. In his late teens and early 20s Ch'i was widely known as a skillful professional craftsman. As was the custom among poor families, Ch'i had been married in 1874, at the age of 11, to a 12-year-old village girl. The first of their children was born about 7 years later.
Beginning as a Painter
While still an apprentice carpenter, Ch'i discovered a worn copy of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, whose figural patterns were used in carving designs. His spare-time study of painting was rekindled by this discovery, his first true knowledge of the orthodox practice of painting. By the age of 27 he had achieved some success as a portrait painter and was able to support his family solely through his activities as an artist.
At the same time Ch'i met several of the leading scholars and artists of the region and with them started to study poetry, painting, and seal carving. Urged to study T'ang poetry, he did so only with the greatest difficulty because of his sparse early education. He persevered, however, and ultimately became a very accomplished poet.
Travel for Education
At the age of 40, leaving home for the first time, Ch'i embarked on a journey through China that took him to many of the hallowed scenic spots and sacred mountains of the country. During his travels he began to develop his interest in the variety of painting called hsieh-i ("expressing the idea"), a method different from the more orthodox mode of representation.
His journey kept Ch'i away for 7 years. When he returned home, he bought and renovated a large, old house, into which he now retired to study and to paint. Half of the old guide to a full education—"Travel 10,000 miles and read 10,000 books"—was fulfilled, and he was determined to read 10,000 books. He was now the father of three sons and two daughters, and shortly after his return the first of his grandchildren was born.
During his travels Ch'i had made countless sketches, and he began turning them into finished works. In his spare time he planted all manner of trees and shrubs around the house and kept fish, birds, shrimp, small animals, and insects. His affectionate study of these plants and creatures later resulted in some of the finest paintings of recent Chinese history.
Move to Peking
This was the period during which the Chinese Empire finally collapsed and the Republic of China was born. It was an age of great instability and disorder, and twice Ch'i was forced to flee to Peking for safety. From about the age of 60 he lived in Peking permanently, teaching at the Peking Institute of Art.
In 1919, Ch'i's wife presented him with a concubine named Precious Pearl. With Precious Pearl he had four more sons and several daughters, the last born when the painter was 78. In 1941, following the death of his wife, he married Precious Pearl.
The finest period of Ch'i's growth as a painter began with his move to Peking. He was now able to gain a much greater familiarity with the works of his noted predecessors, Tao-chi and Pa-ta shan-jen of the 17th century and Wu Ch'ang-shih and Chao Chih-ch'ien of the 19th. As he aged, his creativity, freshness, and artistic vigor seem only to have grown. Many of his finest works were done in his 80s and 90s.
During the Japanese occupation of Peking from 1937 to 1945, Ch'i withdrew from his teaching posts in protest and retired to his home. With the establishment of the People's Republic of China the old painter became a cultural hero. He was subsequently honored with every resource a grateful people could muster. In 1953 a state delegation called upon him to present congratulations on his ninetieth birthday. The frail, slender Ch'i, weak and sickly as a boy, died in 1957 at the grand age of 94. Only twice in his life had he gone as long as 10 days without painting, once at 63 when he lay ill and near death, the second time a year later when his mother died.
Further Reading on Ch'i Pai-shih
For Ch'i's paintings see Yakichiro Suma, Ch'i Pai-shih (1960). There is a good account of Ch'i Pai-shih's life and art in Michael Sullivan, Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century (1959).