“Die Sitting, Die Standing, Die Making Art” – Feng Zikai’s Artistic Life as Rites of Passage
In discussing the death rituals of Zen Buddhism, Ronald L. Grimes in his Deeply Into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passages (2000) notices Soto sect’s dictum “Die sitting, die standing” (Grimes 2000:224). The point of this dictum is to evoke a kind of ritualistic mindfulness that connects everyday life to death: “life is inextricably wed to death [here and now]” (ibid). In other words, the continuation of one’s life passage from one’s birth to (a prepared) death is embodied in the serious and continues attention paid to everyday life. Rites of passage, as Grimes also points out in the conclusion of his book, are acts at the same time embedded in and transforming ordinariness (Grimes 2000:345). Much attention in his study of rites of passage has been paid to performed acts, such as naming ceremony (Grimes 2000:80), comprehensive initiation education program (Grimes 2000:146), wedding invitation (Grimes 2000:211) and retirement party (Grimes 2000:324). However, art, a major component in the rites of passage in probably all great religions, is also crucial in connecting everyday experiences to the mystic passage from life to death. This essay intends to discuss the art of Chinese cartoonist and essayist Feng Zikai as his personal acts of rites of passage.
Feng Zikai, born in 1898 to a gentry family, is a Buddhist layman (or “at-home” monk who marries but otherwise follows Buddhist way of life including vegetarianism). A popular cartoonist and essayist, Feng is less known for his Buddhist engagement partially due to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s taking over power since 1949. Feng’s public art, however, is deeply imbedded in his private Buddhist sensibility. In many ways, his cartoons and essays are performed and performative objects mediating his life as a private individual and a public figure. They are also used by him, consciously or unconsciously, to commemorate his passage of life.
An overview of Feng’s life shows that abstract doctrines have no strong impact on him, not atypical of Chinese literati (Dong 1983:35). Many of his life-long Buddhist practices such as vegetarianism was not results of faith and discipline but visceral aversions to otherwise: “I have never been against eating animals on principles. The only few times I tried when I was a child, I would feel sick and depressed afterwards.” (Feng 1988:60). Similar sensibility is seen in his intuitive conception of passage of time. In one of his earliest (and finest) essays, Gradual Change, Feng mediated: “Time for me is more magical than space. We can always hold on to tangible objects in space, limitless as it is. The efforts to grasp time, however, are always futile – and the only way to do is to see time in the calmness and tranquility of things and objects.” (Feng 1988:3, my translation).
This desire to grasp the intangible time by tangible objects – and the awareness of its difficulty is the essential dynamics prompting Feng Zikai’s artistic engagement which I see as acts of performative rites of passage bridging the otherworldly and everyday life, or using Durkheim’s terms, the sacred and the profane. The key to this ritual bridging is Feng’s ability to see the extraordniary in the ordinary, to see the grand in the small and to see the serious in the humorous.
Feng’s cartoon career began at a very young age. His initial artistic experience was closely associated with a Ming-Dynasty drawing book Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manuel (Barme 2002:21) . One of Feng’s first attempts at painting occurred on his first day in the grade school when he was asked to draw from a superimposition of a woodblock depicting Tang Dynasty sage Liu Zongyuan’s grand gesture after spiritual revelation. However, in tracing and coloring of this woodblock, instead of seeing profound spirituality, a young Feng found it amusingly resemble his father’s big yawn (Feng 1988:83).
This episode occurred on his first school day would be completely mundane and trivial if the motif of this grand gesture/big yawn dualism doesn’t persist later in Feng’s art. In fact, Feng recycled the very imagery of the Sage gesture repeatedly later in his adult cartoons including the one entitled “I raise my gaze with a big yawn” (figure 1, reprinted from Garme’s book). This recreation of the cartoon imagery, thus, can be seen as the recreation and preservation of an important moment of childhood memory – or using Grimes’ words, ritual enactment by selective remembering (Grimes 2000:191). If we view the first school day of a child as some kind of initiation rite in modern secular societies, a salient observation would be: for ordinary people, initiation rites (as well as other rites of passage) are bestowed externally; but for artists, they can be self-motivated and occurred repeatedly throughout their lives – if they have the psychological needs to do so.
Figure 1: (left) Sage Liu Zongyuan’s grand gesture, Qing woodblock; (right) “I raise my gaze with a big yawn”, by Feng Zikai, Shanghai, 1947.
Initiation rites in the so-called “primitive societies” often held in a prolonged period of time and often repeated in different periods of a young person’s life (Newman 1982:239-286). If the first school day as a child is Feng’s first initiation experience, the second one, as far as we know, occurred when he was visiting Tokyo as a young artist: it came as an artistic revelation bestowed by the art of Meiji painter Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934).
If the influence of the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manuel is somehow reactionary in that Feng saw unintended humor in seriousness, Yumeji’s art and personality are more sympathetically evocative: besides Yumeji’s casual yet articulated visual style, which was appealing to Feng, Yumeji embodied a new spiritual and social identity particularly attractive to the young man: he was aloof, not bound by strict social and religious order and an outsider of the master-student hierarchy essential to both Japanese and Chinese traditions (Barme 2002:56). In art, Yumeji crossed thematic boundaries of the Western and the East freely with one picture showing kimono, the other tuxedo. He was constantly juxtaposing and reinventing, yet he never truly betrayed the Eastern spiritual and artistic traditions when he constantly quotes Buddhist mantras and imagery in his creation (Barme 2002:75). His paintings always incorporates the art of calligraphy quintessential to both Chinese and Japanese art and spirituality.
Again, Feng enacted his artistic rites of passage by adopting the Yumeji motifs repeatedly in his own art. One of the most popular Feng’s Yumeji adaptations is about the meeting of two childhood classmates: one is doing well and another goes down. This time, Feng recreated lyrical and sentimental depiction of life, something beyond mere humor (figure 2, reprinted from Barme’s book).
Figure 2: (left) “Classmates” by Takehisa Yumeji, Tokyo 1909; (right) “Primary School Classmates” by Feng Zikai, Shanghai 1945.
Rites of passage are traditionally collective but more and more individualized in modern societies (Grimes 2000:289). Is this individualism absolute? Feng Zikai’s art, if treated as attempts at individual rites of passage, is at the same time individual and collective – its collectivity is expressed in its connection to Feng’s milieu. Friends and mentors were important to him as to other neophytes.
Feng Zikai, in all his life, was attracted to authentically eccentric people – not unlike his artistic endeavors that were often inspired by the profound but peculiar objects or people. The very first person he befriended in his boarding school years in Hangzhou was an odd young man named Yang Bohao who was considered by many teachers and classmates as mentally disturbed. In the obituary Feng wrote decades later for Yang, he related a story: Yang was often absent at classes, but refused to tell teachers any lie as suggested by other students: “I won’t say I’m sick, because I am not.” Yang took a shy Feng to excursions around the West Lake – a major scenic place with cultural significance – searching for secret but interesting spots, against the school principle’s advice. He told Feng to “have a mind of your own” (Barme 2002:30). Feng would hold on to this idea to the end of his life.
Despite the fact that Yang is an unknown in modern Chinese history, his obituary has since become a classical piece of literature often published in essay collections. The question can be asked is whether Feng’s writing of this particular obituary can be viewed as an act of self-imposed initiation rite that fixates a certain core value in his life? If the answer is positive, it again demonstrates that initiation is not an absolutely individual– there is definitely a fraternal if not collective dimension to it.
The individualization of rites of passage, if anything, allows individual reformation of tradition as seen in Feng’s art concerning marriage and family.
Neither wedding nor family life is a common subject in traditional Chinese art in which landscape has the supreme importance, but Feng consciously bring them into his cartoons. Although his marriage is an arranged one – and he never spent much time dwelling on the weddings or other ceremonies related to the union, Feng decidedly used his art to explore other dimension of family life often overlooked by traditions. In particular, in his art he treated women as equal partners in family life. In one essay on painting – completely unrelated to family or women – out of blue, Feng criticized a so-called tradition of Chinese husbands: they show a lot of familiarity with friends, neighbors or even strangers, but when they saw their wives in public, they tended to keep some upright distance, sometimes to the point as if their wives were perfect strangers (Feng 1988:138). Feng responded with quite a few “family outing” paintings and cartoon (figure 3). Seeing in the light of rites of passage concerning marriage, the creation of those unique family paintings within the genre of Chinese landscape brings new substance and meanings to traditional rituals and social organizations.
Figure 3: Feng’s unique “family landscape”.
Grimes remarks that “there is no word in English for a ceremony that might mark the event [of giving birth]” (Grimes 2000:16). The birth rites are also scarce in other societies for a variety of possible reasons (Grime 2000:20). One possibility he fails to mention is the male-centric nature in all rites of passage. Initiation rites in pre-industrial societies often focus on boys (Newman 1982:239-286). Wedding is probably one of the only that have equal participation of women but even this ceremony sometimes features brides being “given away” to the bridegrooms by male members of her family. Giving birth, on the other hand, sees the alienation (or sometimes irrelevance) of men – even Grimes describes vividly husbands’ looking passively at their birthing wives from behind (Grimes 2000:16-18).
Again, if we treat Feng’s art as conscious efforts breaking boundary of traditional rites of passage, some of his cartoons, while not depicting birth per se, shows children (especially his daughters) in the glory of their innocence (figure 4)
Figure 4: A Bao (Feng’s daughter)
Except for one Buddhist album, most Feng’s art is not overtly religious, but they often commemorate small things in his life. There is a certain refreshing humor or tranquility in every single piece of his art, but there is also a consistent sense of passage of time in it (figure 5)
(figure 5, “Party is Over”)
Feng’s struggle to grasp the intangible passage of life and time with tangible things defines his Buddhist spirituality and his art. His art, in itself continuing a very Buddhist mindfulness and almost animistic in that it focuses not on a single deity but on small things and occurrences, can be seen as individualized rites of passage that is not restrained by the individual’s actual age. The art of Feng Zikai and its recurring themes, are acts and artifacts of a unique kind of rites of passage. The Soto Zen dictum, thus, can be expanded as “Die sitting, die standing, and die making art”.
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Grimes, Ronald L
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