Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 1, Issue 37
China’s culture and civilization have long, complicated and comprehensive histories. In this Issue, I look at one discrete aspect of China’s past through the lens of Zhou Lianggong, a nuanced man who lived through momentous times during the seventeenth century in China.
Zhou Lianggong: Confucian Scholar-Art Patron-Government Official-Literatus
One More Thought (AAPI Heritage Month)
Zhou Lianggong: Confucian Scholar-Art Patron -Government Official-Literatus
Zhou Lianggong (周亮工)(1612-1672) was a poet, calligrapher, essayist, biographer, art patron, government official, and, when the times demanded, military strategist and leader, before, during, and after the prolonged, turbulent transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty in the seventeenth century. He served the Ming government and then the Qing government, always remaining devoted to traditional Chinese culture and civilization as expressed through arts, writings, and objects.
Zhou was born in cosmopolitan Nanjing, the then-center of the Chinese empire south of the Yangtze River, though his family was registered as residents of northern Kaifeng south of the Yellow River. His family was a learned one, but of a lower pedigree and not wealthy. The deep admiration of education instilled at home, plus the fortuitous benefit of growing up in a vibrant Nanjing neighborhood (Qinhuai) that was a hub of artists and cultured men from around China, set Zhou on his life path.
Zhou was an ambitious boy who grew into a driven man. Encyclopedic knowledge of the Confucian classics and literary traditions was the ticket to getting ahead in Chinese society during most of the Imperial Era and in particular from the Song Dynasty through to the late Qing Dynasty (approximately 960-1905). The Imperial examination system, which was the mechanism for testing this knowledge, opened doors to social mobility, civil service opportunity, economic growth, and secured family destiny.
Zhou studied long and hard and ultimately earned his way through the Imperial examination system. This extended time of study saw him be kicked out of Nanjing by rivals and forced back to Kaifeng for many years. Throughout his life, each adversity (and there were many) seemed to lead him to new acquaintances and experiences that pushed him forward. He passed the provincial juren exam on is second try (1639). He then passed the most exalted palace exam (1640) and became a jinshi. Zhou was now qualified (and expected) to take a leading role in Chinese society.
Hongnam Kim has written of Zhou that he was “a man of classical culture and taste, in his aesthetic outlook, however, Zhou maintained the typical literati view – an amalgam of moralistic and pragmatic concepts – that art manifests the Dao (the Moral Way), and thereby is an aid to self-cultivation and spiritual enlightenment.”
Zhou was not only a gifted poet and writer, but he was also an inveterate collector of mostly paintings and seals. As an art patron who seemed to know everyone, he sponsored, supported, and collected legions of artists. In the arts, if you were a leading painter or seal carver during the seventeenth century, you knew or wanted to know Zhou Lianggong. And Zhou wanted to know you. The reciprocal relationship between patron and artist served the wishes and needs of both. As a result, painters painted with abandon for Zhou’s albums.
Zhou had the ability to speak to multiple sensibilities. He supported the orthodox school of artists paying strict homage to the styles and traditions of revered painters and calligraphers from past Dynasties. Yet, he collected almost exclusively contemporary artists who might be orthodox or individualists, so-called, who adapted with modern expression to honor the past in new ways.
He was interested in the people who created and perpetuated culture. Zhou wrote an annotated bibliography of seventy-eight, seventeenth-century painters entitled the Du Hua Lu, Lives of Painters (1673). The entrees were both learned and often heartfelt. He also wrote the Yinren Zhuan, Lives of Seal Carvers. In this latter book, the carvers he collected and profiled also included women artists.
For Zhou, with status came opportunity. With opportunity came financial resources. With financial resources came more patronage of the arts and prestige. And yet, living in turbulent times that he did, with all of the above also came envy, spite, and constant peril. Zhou knew the ways of the world and played the game well; however, he nonetheless suffered repeated cycles of disaster and rebirth. Through it all, Zhou appeared to always have his mind set in the present on honoring the past to establish his and Chinese culture’s future. This was how he cultivated his self to meet the Confucian ideal.
During the last years of the Ming Dynasty, Zhou served as scholar-official in charge (akin to a regional governor or city mayor in our terms) of a coastal district in northern China’s Shandong Province. Later, during the early years of the Qing Dynasty, he served in a myriad of official roles in Yangzhou, Fujian, and finally Beijing—as censor, salt controller, provincial judge, financial commissioner, and more.
He proved himself adept at winning the hearts and minds of the people, at improving the conditions where he was posted, and (when in Shandong early on) in defending his city against military incursions from the then-approaching Manchu’s. Even later when collaborating with the new Manchu Qing government, he continued to fit within the worlds of different groups of people, whether rebel Ming loyalist or ruling Qing.
When the political rollercoaster swerved down once again years later during Qing rule, Zhou was falsely impeached and convicted in Fujian and imprisoned in Beijing for six years with a death sentence hanging over his head the entire time. When he was arrested and convicted, 108 friends, acquaintances, and other officials were also swept up in the prosecution and similarly jailed. Yet, his charmed life continued when he was ultimately spared and restored to position once again.
Zhou was loyal--to friends, to family, and to community. Zhou was also human. He had his vanities. He felt crushed when he lost his art collection during downswings. He felt elated when thereafter rebuilding his collection. He strived to preserve appreciation of China’s Confucian cultural traditions, while at the same time wanting to ensure his good name into the distant future.
Throughout extensive travels in his government roles, he was known to carry his massive painting collection with him. During the early Qing Dynasty, he was gifted a small boat and turned it into a floating art gallery and artist retreat. Traveling along the Grand Canal and the Yangtze River between Yangzhou, Nanjing, and beyond, his boat, nicknamed Jiuyuan, became legendary. An artist friend wrote in a poem that, “‘He [Zhou] kept the mist and clouds (calligraphy and paintings) in his boat wherever he went. Cases of paintings were tied to the upper rudder. When the boat was moored, he invited his friends to join his imaginary journeys enjoying his collection of art works.’’’
What Zhou accomplished during his lifetime has indeed lived on. His life had Confucian merit. His legacy, through his writings, through his calligraphy, through the art that was painted for him to collect, through the stories that he cultivated and told and preserved, all of these remain unparalleled resources to this day.
One More Thought (AAPI Heritage Month)
The month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) Month. The following link is to Boston University webpage profiling AAPI books, movies, and podcasts: https://www.bu.edu/articles/2022/books-podcasts-movies-asian-american-pacific-islander-heritage-month/.
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Hongnam Kim, The Life of a Patron: Zhou Lianggong (1612-1672) and the Painters of Seventeenth-Century China, China Institute of America, 1996, Page 21.
Kim, Page 65.