The following article is included here in entirety and should be cited as follows:

Hawks, Shelley Drake.  (2010).  “Summoning Confucius:  Inside Shi Lu’s Imagination.” In Richard King (Ed.), with Ralph Croizier, Shengtian Zheng, and Scott Watson, Art in Turmoil.  The Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Vancouver and Toronto:  UBC Press.

Summoning Confucius: Inside Shi Lu's Imagination


No other Chinese artist pitted himself against the Cultural Revolution as boldly as Shi Lu (Feng Yaheng, 1919-82). A proud and committed revolutionary who joined the Communist Party in the Chinese communists’ wartime headquarters of Yan’an, Shi Lu vehemently disagreed with the Cultural Revolution’s assault on inherited culture. An artist of high standing until his disgrace in 1964, he had completed several portraits of Mao Zedong prior to the Cultural Revolution. Although he was not personally acquainted with the chairman, he felt a strong spiritual kinship with him and joined the communist movement because he recognized the “inside stuff" of himself in Mao.1 His son recalls that strangers sometimes mistook Shi Lu for Mao be cause Shi Lu’s face and swooping hair bore a resemblance to those of the Communist Party chairman. Thus, having his reputation defamed as a result of a dispute over Fighting in Northern Shaanxi, his prized portrait of Mao, exacted a huge psychological toll on Shi Lu. Wounded at his rejection by the political idol he had placed at the center of his revolutionary identity, Shi Lu underwent a profound transformation. A close reading of selected examples of his Cultural Revolution artwork provides a window on the erosion and final collapse of his Mao-centered faith.


The removal in 1964 of his famous (or infamous) portrait of Mao to a storeroom, and a party-imposed ban on his recently published catalogue, struck a profound  blow to Shi Lu’s self-esteem. As early as 1961-62, his exploratory approach to landscape painting had sparked criticism within Beijing art circles. However, official disapproval did not take a grave turn until 1964 when representatives of the Beijing art establishment asked him to revise his publicly commissioned masterpiece Fighting in Northern Shaanxi, and he refused.2 Shi Lu experienced physical and mental trauma as a result of these battles to defend his reputation. To obtain relief from a painful liver condition, he took time off from his administrative duties as chairman of the Xi’an Art Association and began practising qigong meditation. He spent hours in a trance without eating or sleeping and devised strange herbal [Page 58] concoctions to treat what he described as a virus. One cold day in 1965, he created a public spectacle when, wearing little clothing, he wallowed in the snow on the grounds of the Xi’an Art Academy.3 On the recommendation of a family friend who recognized that he required urgent medical attention, Shi Lu’s wife, Min Lisheng, urged authorities to hospitalize him for mental illness. He was still under treatment at a psychiatric institution near Xi’an for symptoms related to schizophrenia when the Cultural Revolution broke out in the summer of 1966.



Shi Lu 石魯 (nee Feng Yaheng) (1919-82) Born in Renshou Country, Sichuan province. Woodcut artist and ink painter. 


Despite his medically diagnosed mental condition, the Red Guards offered Shi Lu no immunity from political persecution. On the contrary, activists were convinced that the former chairman of the Xi’an Art Association was feigning insanity in order to escape punishment for his political “crimes.” They carted off a heavily medicated Shi Lu to a makeshift jail within the art academy and held him captive for three years. Sedated, he passively endured humiliation and constant beatings for the first two of these. Red Guards were particularly brutal to his family, once arranging for one of his sons to be hung from a tree for hours until he denounced his father. Aware of these acts of cruelty, Shi Lu resolved to stop taking sedatives and began to fight back. During a political education meeting in 1969, he pointedly criticized Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. The worker’s group in charge of the art academy could not tolerate his frank criticism of a high-ranking revolutionary leader. They sent him to be detained at the Law Department of the Xi’an Art Academy’s provincial offices, accusing him of the very serious crime of being a “recent counter-revolutionary,” one who opposes current policies. Although the allegation was serious, the provincial authorities in charge of detaining Shi Lu permitted him to make occasional visits home as he awaited a verdict. Twice, he took advantage of these periods of lax surveillance to escape from imprisonment, once eluding his captors for several months. After he was re-arrested in the fall of 1969, he was sentenced to capital punishment and came close to being executed. Although he was finally permitted to return home in December 1969 and spent the 1970s in the care of his family, his political crimes continued to be regarded as very serious throughout the late Cultural Revolution era.


What sets Shi Lu’s story apart from that of other Chinese artist victims is not merely the severity of his persecution or the drama of his life story. Simply outlasting the Cultural Revolution was in itself a heroic feat, but Shi Lu achieved something far greater. He was that rare individual who dared to argue with the logic of the Cultural Revolution as the movement unfolded. Of those Chinese artists who, like him, were victims subjected to prolonged persecution and surveillance, only a handful managed to produce private art [Page 59] at all during the late 1960s and early 1970s.4 Arguably, no other Chinese artist produced such thoughtful and original poems and paintings during this period. Shi Lu demonstrated a unique capacity for forging art into a weapon of spiritual resistance. He stretched the limit of what was possible to say and do under extremely repressive circumstances, aiming his “missiles” (his privately produced poems and paintings) squarely at the false claims and callous indifference of Maoist extremism. In doing so, he exploited the fact of his madness, using it as a form of camouflage that enabled his open defence of China’s cultural inheritance against the exterminatory impulses of the Cultural Revolution. Most of his contemporaries were unable to grasp the true significance of his behaviour, but a retrospective audience can approach a fuller appreciation.


What nourished Shi Lu’s stubborn independence? Once his Mao-centred faith came into question, what underlying values remained? A surprising aspect of his response to the Cultural Revolution is the degree to which he invoked Confucian legacies as a strategy for protest and psychological compensation. In 1969, during his brief escape from confinement, Shi Lu composed a poem in the persona of the unjustly persecuted poet-official, Qu Yuan. This venerated historical figure was a perennial favorite of Confucian scholars, who summoned Qu Yuan’s memory as a way to affirm their loyalty and self-worth in the face of doubts. During the early 1970s, Shi Lu protested the radical Maoists’ defamation of Confucius by drawing a portrait of Confucius in his poetry diary and, in a related painting, dedicating a castle to the ancient philosopher’s name. In the diary, Shi Lu claimed to have seen a statue of Confucius on the grounds of an ancient Indian castle in Old Delhi during 1955. This recollection (or dream) of an Indian-made statue of Confucius wearing plain cotton clothing inspired the portrait in the diary. Elsewhere in the same diary, Shi Lu wrote a historical fable describing a fictional encounter between Confucius and China’s notorious first emperor Qin Shihuang (a historical figure with whom Mao was closely associated). By inventing an apocryphal Confucius who gains audience with Qin Shihuang (the historical Confucius actually lived during a different century), Shi Lu seemed to be playing out his own fantasy of admonishing the communist “emperor.” Speaking sometimes as narrator and sometimes as “Confucius” himself, Shi Lu challenged Mao on ethical grounds for the Cultural Revolution’s cruel repetition of Qin Shihuang’s policy, two millennia earlier, of “burning books and burying scholars alive.”5


Shi Lu’s evocations of Confucius and Qu Yuan situated his contemporary dilemma within a long-standing literature concerned with moral integrity amidst persecution. He summoned and impersonated these heroic [Page 60] figures as a strategy to bolster his own remonstrating courage.6 The spirit of the ancestors was to him a living force, not a fossilized relic in need of discarding. The Confucius Shi Lu imagined grew out of his specific political and psychological needs during the Cultural Revolution, and his work should not be misinterpreted  as advocating  a serious  restoration  of Confucianism (though he was accused of this by censoring authorities in the context of the “black painting” exhibition of 1974). Until his death in 1982, Shi Lu continued to think of himself as defending an idealized, uncorrupted version of communism associated in his mind with the revolutionary community of Yan’an. He affiliated himself with Confucius and the Confucian tradition of righteous remonstrance as a counterweight to the Cultural Revolution’s total rejection of the past and its insistence on a totally new present. To summon Confucius affirmed his conviction that true creativity was not possible without nurturing deep roots within one’s own cultural inheritance. That he dared to create art honouring Confucius during the publicly declared Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius movement of 1973-74 attests to his willingness to court danger and underlines the boldness of his resistance art.


Shi Lu was one of the first devout communists of his generation to recognize that a reconstituted Confucianism still had value for modern living, and that it need not be seen as incompatible with communism. Having been on the receiving end of the Red Guard assault, he came to understand that revolutionary ethics focused on eliminating social evils through struggle could not entirely supplant the millennia-old Confucian ethical system premised on humaneness and moderation. The Confucian emphasis on intellectual fellowship across time and space was emotionally satisfying for him as well. By situating himself within a succession of Confucian paragons who transformed adversity into impassioned creativity, he imbued his individual suffering with collective meaning and assured that his damaged reputation would expand rather than contract with time. To a defender of creative autonomy such as Shi Lu, Confucianism was arguably the most salient and robust mental tool at his disposal to combat the totalitarian impulses of the Cultural Revolution. An indefatigable idealist, like Confucius himself, Shi Lu persisted in asserting his values even when there were no reasonable prospects for success.7 Confucianism’s tradition of bold remonstration gave him the backbone he needed to imagine himself confronting Mao, a task psychologically impossible for most Chinese people. He did not challenge the “emperor” face to face, choosing instead to deposit his admonitions and defiance in art for the benefit of history.


What Shi Lu most desired within the context of the Cultural Revolution was the space from which he could reconsider New China’s place in history [Page 61] and his own relationship to politics. As doubt and anger eroded his Mao-centred faith, he summoned not only Confucius, but also the spirit of cosmopolitanism and individualism he had experienced as a youth during the New Culture era. Writings by the seminal New Culture author Lu Xun (whom Shi Lu so revered during his young adulthood that he adopted “Lu” as the second half of his pen name) resurfaced in his consciousness as his hero-worship of Mao lessened. During the early 1960s, he began privately to immerse himself in the study of the arch-individualist  painter Shitao, or Daoji (1644-1717), another idol of his youth (and source for the first part of his pen name).8 Both Lu Xun and Shitao offered native precedents for Shi Lu’s fierce drive for independence. Thinking of himself as extending their bold creative legacy fortified his will to resist political pressure and to continue creating self-expressive art. The schizophrenia triggered by his falling away from Mao also played a role in his capacity for shaking loose from previous beliefs and attachments. Mental illness was not simply a symptom of his emotional pain. Schizophrenia imbued him with a special cognitive perspective that allowed him to be unusually self-interpreting and flexible in his thoughts.9 His enhanced capacity to divorce himself from social expectations and to contemplate himself from a remove transformed him into a political agnostic much sooner than was the case for his contemporaries. By the late Cultural Revolution period, a triumphant but frail Shi Lu had completed an anguished process of pushing aside a secular god and replacing him with his own personal space.


Shi Lu’s Refusal to Revise Fighting in Northern Shaanxi


Fighting in Northern Shaanxi (1959, detail)

Figure 2.1   Shi Lu, Fighting in Northern Shaanxi (1959, detail). The full image measures 238 by 216 centimetres. Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1998), Figure 141.



Shi Lu’s political troubles began in earnest during 1964 when a military official, perhaps the chairman’s own mouthpiece, found fault with his 1959 Fighting in Northern Shaanxi, a history painting that features Chairman Mao in 1947, during the time in which he led communist troops against Nationalist forces (Figure 2.1).10  Party organs had commissioned Shi Lu to create a painting on this theme for the newly constructed Museum of Revolutionary History at Tian’anmen Square in honour of the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic. Beijing cultural officials including Cai Ruohong, Hua Junwu, and Wang Zhaowen reviewed his drafts and approved his painting in 1959.11 Initially, party publications hailed it as a masterpiece.  However, in the more radical political climate of 1964, Shi Lu’s eccentric choice of positioning the chairman near a Shaanxi cliff edge and turning him sideways so that he stands with his back to the viewer fell under renewed scrutiny. Mao’s relatively small size and the fact that only three bodyguards and [Page 62] his horse accompany him on the summit became issues rendering the painting politically suspect. According to an official complaint sent to Shi Lu in 1964, a military official suggested that the artist’s portrayal made the chairman appear “isolated and at the end of the road.”12 The unfortunate coincidence that the painting dated from 1959, the same year in which then minister of defence Peng Dehuai had famously criticized the chairman’s Great Leap Forward policies during the Lushan conference, raised the spectre that it functioned in collusion with Peng’s criticism of Mao.13 [Page 63]


These accusations against Shi Lu’s painting should be seen within the larger context of the military’s increased role as guardian of the chairman’s prestige under Lin Biao, the general whom Mao chose to succeed the ousted Peng Dehuai.


By 1964, the military had begun a rigorous inspection of official displays of art in connection with an escalating cult surrounding Mao. Any portrait of China’s supreme leader now had to measure up to the exaggerated conventions of deference customary in socialist-realist portraiture of Stalin and Lenin. Shi Lu’s portrait was, at least on the face of it, out of tune with these soaring expectations regarding images of Mao. Shi Lu’s depiction of Shaanxi’s mountain peaks, the endpoint of the famed Long March (1935- 36) and cradle of Chinese communism, was not the target of criticism. They were bathed in symbolic red, and the play of sunlight gave them an aura of heroism. But the Great Man of Chinese Communism situated within these vast peaks looked uncomfortably modest in comparison to his magnificent surroundings.  Although accusations of hidden subversive content may sound arbitrary to modern readers, the claim that Shi Lu’s painting reveals ambivalence toward Chairman Mao’s leadership may have validity. Even a fellow artist, a sculptor who shared living quarters with Shi Lu at the time, wondered why the chairman was so small.14  The highest red peak in the foreground and the rest of the mountain range receding into the distance at the upper left occupy a higher plane than Mao. Not only does he stand virtually alone on the precipice, he faces sideways, with his face partially hidden from the viewer. Moreover, the figures in the painting, including Mao himself, are situated on a descending slope at cliff ’s edge. No one may be sliding down the hill yet, but their cliff-side perch affords them no stable ground. Mao’s horse, with his arched neck and raised foreleg, seems unsettled despite the peasant attending him. Given the eccentric visual quality of this configuration, the official charged with shoring up Mao’s reputation, which was flagging due to the disastrous failure of the Great Leap Forward initiative, had grounds for questioning the artist’s intentions: was Shi Lu admonishing Chairman Mao to step back from the ledge?


Shi Lu’s disaffection from the Great Leap Forward campaign can be inferred from his later writings during and after the Cultural Revolution. He adamantly disagreed with Mao’s relentless push toward steel construction and bomb making, imbalanced policies already recognized by 1959 to have contributed to a famine that eventually claimed an estimated 30 million lives. Thus, it is conceivable that he intended his cliff-side imagery to suggest a veiled remonstrance against the chairman’s policies, or perhaps his repressed anger unintentionally registered in the work. Although the [Page 64] painting does position Mao in the luminous centre of the national landscape, the vast scale of the mountains  cuts him down to human size. Dwarfing Mao in a landscape may have been Shi Lu’s way of injecting a cautionary note concerning the danger of treating him like a god. A speech he delivered to the Standing Committee of the Chinese Artists’ Association in 1979 confirms the disgust he felt for the cult of Mao and for those who championed it, particularly Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.15 In 1959, Shi Lu may have viewed his public commission as an opportunity to make a statement about what he saw as the true meaning of China’s communist revolution. A veteran cadre, he had spent the late 1950s touring the remote, impoverished regions of Shaanxi Province, sketching its farmers and distinctive geography. He had seen with his own eyes the famine triggered by the chairman’s policies. As a participant in the original revolutionary community headquartered at Yan’an during the 1940s, he perhaps felt that his prerogative and duty was to remind the chairman, in the great tradition of a Confucian censor, to live up to his promise: “to serve the people.”


One thing that cannot be disputed is the degree to which Shi Lu took the public commission seriously as an opportunity to make a grand statement about Chinese art in the revolutionary era. The aesthetic choices he made in response to this political assignment were ambitious and all his own. Like Shitao, the painter from whom he took half his pen name, Shi Lu believed that a great landscape painting revealed in its brushwork the artist’s own emotions and stored experience. According to Shitao’s treatise on art (which Shi Lu had studied intensely and would write a sequel to in 1963), the mountains in a painting would not come alive unless they reflected the artist’s personal knowledge of actual topography. To prepare for this honoured assignment to paint on behalf of Shaanxi Province, Shi Lu had exhaustively socialist-realist tradition developed in the Soviet Union, he thought that a reliance on Soviet prototypes for this project would dishonour the national heritage. He hoped to pioneer an entirely new format for socialist realism using brush and ink, one that would be informed by Chinese landscape painting and Tang poetry. Perhaps his fervent desire to create a personal masterpiece drawn from native precedents distracted him from thinking carefully enough about the political risks of adopting such a bold conceptual strategy. Indeed, this painting marked an important breakthrough in his development of a new landscape style. Shi Lu’s son suggests that part of the controversy surrounding this painting stemmed from uncertainty regarding whether it should be categorized as a landscape or a figure painting. Shi Lu’s [Page 65] masterful portrayal of Shaanxi’s mountains argued for the former. However, the presence of such a revered icon within the landscape made it incumbent on the artist to create a quasi-religious aura around the figure. According to this explanation, Shi Lu set out to pay suitable homage to Mao but encountered controversy because he followed an unconventional formal strategy. According to the 1985 reminiscence of Ma Gaihu, the sculptor mentioned earlier who roomed with the painter during the project, Shi Lu made the key decision while preparing sketches for the painting that he would symbolically represent the “one million strong soldiers” loyal to Mao as features of the mountain landscape.16 Employing multiple mountain peaks to suggest the presence of the soldiers, rather than literally drawing each one, would render a more dignified, grander conception. In early drafts, he had surrounded Mao with other communist leaders but ultimately decided to portray him alone at the summit (save for a small retinue slightly below) because he thought this would most effectively herald Mao as the centrepiece of China’s communist movement. In the final version, Mao’s profiled figure shares the mountaintop with a groom attending his horse and an old peasant gazing respectfully up at him. Ma remarked that this triangular arrangement of figures was intended to illustrate both Mao’s supreme importance (as the triangle’s tallest member) and his indissoluble connection to ordinary people. This interpretation of the painting as a paean to Mao does not necessarily negate the more dangerous meaning placing limits on Mao’s authority, as postulated above. Shi Lu’s common practice was to conceive paintings in such a way as to invite the viewer to discover a range of possible meanings. Some of his paintings can be shown to present one meaning initially, only to reveal another once a symbolic clue is recognized and decoded.17


According to Ma’s memoir, Shi Lu postponed painting Mao until he had completed everything else. Throughout the drafting stage, he scrutinized and copied several existing sculptural versions of Mao, but none completely satisfied him. Finally, he asked his friend Ma to make a sculpture of Mao’s full body with two hands clasped in back. Shi Lu copied the resulting work numerous times until he had internalized it to such a degree that he could execute it spontaneously without any visual aid. Only after he shut himself off in his studio for several nights and became confident that he could execute the figure perfectly did he undertake to paint it. The final outcome was a virtuoso freehand rendition of the chairman’s profile, daringly executed in the “boneless” brushwork of ancient Chinese ink painting! [Page 66]


The retrospective comments of Shi Guo, Shi Lu’s son, add another dimension to our understanding of the artist’s thoughts regarding the figure of Mao. Shi Guo reports that his father had a specific conception in mind – to represent Mao’s inspired presence within the communist movement as analogous to a pagoda. Shi Lu’s companion piece to this painting, commissioned at the same time for the Shaanxi hall of the Great Hall of the People and titled Letting the Horses Drink at the Yan River, features just such a cliffside pagoda of roughly the same scale and shape as Mao’s figure in the Shaanxi painting. By associating Mao symbolically with a pagoda (particularly the famous Treasure Pagoda overlooking Yan’an), Shi Lu sought to reinforce his central message that Mao’s leadership was the beacon and unifying  force that gave communist fighters the will to prevail.


On the other hand, the subject matter of this companion painting can also be interpreted  as bolstering the more dangerous message of admonishing Mao for failing to put the welfare of the people first. When these two paintings were contemplated and completed in 1959, the rhetoric of the Great Leap Forward campaign encouraged the masses to make steel without respite. In this companion painting to the Mao portrait, Shi Lu chose to represent the very moment when the workhorses serving the revolution are allowed to nourish themselves. Riderless and unsaddled except for one, the horses have been set loose to drink their fill. A Chinese peasant, also at ease, gazes up toward the Yan’an pagoda visible in the distance, tinted red by the sunset and occupying the highest point on the mountain. In this painting, Chairman Mao’s presence is implied but not depicted.


Having vested enormous energy and ambition in this commissioned project in honour of the nation’s founding, Shi Lu was supremely confident that his landscapes were among the most important of his career and that they deserved the high praise that they initially received. Thus, when a high- ranking military official criticized Fighting in Northern Shaanxi in 1964, Shi Lu ignored the complaints. The artist refused to bow to superiors who wished him to modify the work (even though revision was customary practice in the Soviet Union and among Soviet-inspired Chinese oil painters). In response to Shi Lu’s unwillingness to modify his portrayal of Mao, Beijing authorities halted production of a catalogue of his works featuring the disputed picture and ordered a recall of any copies already distributed to bookstores. Shi Lu was asked to replace the image with another, but he flatly refused, angrily returning the money he had received for the catalogue’s production. The stalemate ended with the removal of his masterpiece Fighting in Northern Shaanxi from the Museum of Revolutionary History’s exhibition hall. [Page 67]


Connecting with Qu Yuan (1969)


Shi Lu was still wrestling with the rancour he felt regarding this controversy when mental illness, and then the Cultural Revolution, engulfed him. He commented directly on his Cultural Revolution experience in a 1969 lament composed in the ancient style of Qu Yuan’s “Encountering Sorrow” (Li sao) and specifically invoking “Heavenly Questions” (Tian wen), another poem in the same series. In his archaic-style poem, Shi Lu likened the slander levelled at him by radical Maoists to that directed at Qu Yuan, who was unjustly banished from court and forced to wander in the wilderness in present-day Sichuan until he finally drowned himself in the Miluo River.18 What makes Shi Lu’s retelling of the legend such compelling political theatre is the fact that, when he conceived the poem, he himself was wandering alone in the Sichuan Mountains, having fled his “ox-shed” jail cell during the summer of 1969. Hungry and unkempt, musing aloud about his mistreatment, and contemplating suicide, Shi Lu re-enacted Qu Yuan’s story as a vehicle through which to proclaim his continued loyalty and record his inner thoughts. In the reader’s retrospective imagining, the curtain rises on an exhausted yet defiant artist-revolutionary alternately cursing and weeping at his Cultural Revolution fate:


By Shi Lu


(Translation by Shelley Drake Hawks)



    Laws blackened, azure sky
    Streaked like the arched brow of a painted woman, oh!
    Desperate flight ends in green mountains, weeping.
    Tears shared among netted fish and turtles, oh!
    I’m not ready to descend to the underworld yet.
    Why is Qu Yuan distressed to see his native Chu inflamed? oh!
    You lost sight of the road to Communism!
    Why should my body fill the belly of fish?
    I’d be denounced as traitor.
    I’ll hold back sobs and question heaven.



    Climb to the universe’s summit, oh!
    Peer down at a tiny world, [Page 68]
    Horses, orchids: pelted by sand, a landscape alters completely, oh!
    Look out over vast heights – enough steps!
    The old war horse still enjoys fresh grass, oh!
    Why maliciously blow dew from the blossom?



    Wishing to shout, “Long live the Chairman!”
    Mouth suddenly gagged: a struggle for control, oh!
    Now look, who will expel the hoodlums trained in Russia?
    I think they are the remnants of Chiang Kaishek’s running dogs.
    Dirtying the water, turning the fish black,
    Toxic hands whip callously until blood flows,
    Scoffing at the virtuous life.
    I’ll keep walking my own path.



    Step by step crossing heaven’s bridge,
    I ask questions, eat wind, drink water –
    Which family should I deprive of cooking oil?
    Mountain cliff, water’s edge – is there no road to follow?
    Suppose I fly the body across the sky to ask the sun?
    In a myth of bygone days, an archer shoots that fiery light.
    I never opposed Heaven or tried to change the star.
    I ask myself, does integrity remain?
    Parading in my dunce cap, I know within:
    This world is not hateful.
    Ugliness need not infect the self.
    Communist Party members are not black criminals.
    Gazing at flowers, the autumn moon, I wonder at the reason,
    Maybe old Cang Jie himself could say.



    I am luminous as the north star, oh!
    Shaking with the wind.
    Why not look toward high ground
    Where spring wind revitalizes?
    Ancient and modern are one.
    Behold – the full horizon.


    (Shi Lu’s postscript)


    All day I chanted verse, no dreams, [Page 69]
    Feeling a little crazy. Now I know why.
    To repair the sky – that was Nu Wa’s beautiful story.
    I look at spring-autumn-flower-moon as a single moment –
    Why trifle over wasted things?


Shi Lu’s poem opens with a typically Confucian evocation of a sombre sky mirroring the blackened state of human affairs. Against this vivid backdrop, the anguished poet invites the reader to listen in as he narrates his thoughts. Although the poem is presented as a spontaneous upwelling of grief, in actuality each line has been carefully crafted to distill Shi Lu’s emotions, politics, and philosophy. The landscape plays a special function of marking his progression in resolving the classic Confucian dilemma of how a virtuous minister should respond to unjust accusations. As in the original Qu Yuan poem “Encountering Sorrow,” the poet’s body taxis between the actual landscape of mountains and rivers, where he weeps and paces restlessly, and a cosmic landscape physically associated with the sky. Solving the predicament entails taking a magical journey upward to question legendary heroes and sky authorities. The poet’s ultimate aspiration, as stated in the poem’s title and its epilogue, is to repair the broken sky, perhaps a reference to finding a way of reversing the damage caused by the Cultural Revolution.


Within the main body of the poem, Shi Lu explains why his reputation has been sullied (assigning blame to the “hoodlums trained in Russia”) and announces his continued loyalty to Chairman Mao (“I never opposed Heaven or tried to change the star”). Though he has sunk to the depths of despair, Shi Lu clarifies that he will not take the path of suicide chosen by Qu Yuan and many Cultural Revolution victims. Rather, he will live on stubbornly, communing with the spirit of ancestors. As the poem progresses, he stokes up confidence in himself and his program (“I’ll keep walking my own path”). Although he begins the poem with the traditional pose of questioning Heaven – for example, remonstrating with a higher authority – he shifts to a process of finding his own answers by the fourth stanza.


This evolving sense of independence culminates dramatically in the final stanza, when the poet describes himself in vaunted terms as a cosmic exemplar (“I am luminous as the north star”).23 He tempers and humanizes this assertion by characterizing himself as “shaking with the wind.” By linking himself with the sky, Shi Lu also suggests that he has finally risen above the strife associated with the terrestrial world to achieve transcendence. He counsels posterity to strive for purity regardless of environment, remarking “Ugliness need not infect the self” and adding “Why not look toward high ground / Where spring wind revitalizes?” The final two lines of the fifth [Page 70] stanza emphasize  what would be a constant theme throughout Shi Lu’s Cultural Revolution art: the communist age must not be cut off from the larger stream of Chinese history: “Ancient  and modern are one.” The way to escape narrow thinking and restore one’s sense of perspective, Shi Lu’s poem suggests, is to think like a landscape painter: climb to an elevated place and look out unimpeded at “the full horizon.”


Shi Lu’s Qu Yuan–inspired poem stresses his continued loyalty to communism and does not necessarily indicate that he has departed from a Mao-centred faith. A fine poet himself, Mao would have appreciated the elegance of Shi Lu’s language and might not have found it offensive had he had the opportunity or inclination to read it. Although Shi Lu’s poem shows clear disrespect for extremists like Jiang Qing, whom he held responsible for the catastrophe, his strong identification with a remote ancestor such as Qu Yuan was not necessarily inconsistent with Chinese communist sensibilities. Qu Yuan had been respected even within communist circles during the 1940s and 1950s as a national icon and symbol of Chinese culture’s literary greatness. During the Great Leap Forward era, he had even been promoted as an alter ego for Mao, symbolizing the bold critical spirit associated with revolution. Therefore, Shi Lu’s adoption of the Qu Yuan persona to remonstrate with the Cultural Revolution would not have been problematic had the old party establishment returned to power. Possibly, he envisioned circulating the poem as a vehicle for persuading some high political authority to reverse extremist policies and remedy the unjust purging of sincere and committed communist offcials (including Shi Lu himself).


Although the poem is ostensibly concerned with Shi Lu’s loyalty in the face of adversity, a close scrutiny of the poetic narrative does hint at his evolving disaffection. The fact that the “you” in the dramatic line “You lost sight of the road to communism” remains unidentified leaves him open to the accusation that he may be addressing Mao himself. In the fourth stanza, Shi Lu flies across the sky to ask the sun for an explanation. That he can find no requisite authority in his search for answers suggests that the sovereign is not properly minding the shop. This interpretation is supported by a remark made by Shi Lu when he was recaptured by radical authorities following his escape to Sichuan. Questioned about his feelings regarding the chairman, he admitted that he had something critical to say, even about Mao himself. According to his son’s memoirs, he criticized Mao for putting his trust in “the new aristocracy,” his name for the Cultural Revolution group.24


Thirty years before, Shi Lu had fled a privileged upbringing in Sichuan to pursue revolution in Yan’an. Now, in the context of his 1969 escape, he [Page 71] fled the revolution to return to his hometown. His return south must have stirred memories of his childhood in a wealthy landholding family, a class background he had long since renounced. The southern lake region’s historic association with suffering poets may also have informed his choice of destination. For two months, he turned back the clock, chanting poetry and surviving on wild vegetables and fruit. When his hunger became desperate, he borrowed corn from peasant households and left a note explaining that he would return with money. Sometimes he performed acupuncture treatment in exchange for food. His bizarre appearance created a commotion among villagers. Local authorities grew concerned about the unusual vagrant in their midst and eventually jailed him, suspecting that he was a Soviet spy. Once his true identity as an escaped “counter-revolutionary” was revealed, the fugitive poet was returned to the custody of the Shaanxi Revolutionary Art Association at the Xi’an Art Academy.


After his return to solitary confinement in the fall of 1969, Shi Lu wrote a self-criticism document in which he aired his doubts about the validity of practically all of Mao’s major policy initiatives, including collectivization and the Great Leap Forward steel-making campaign. He expressed his absolute opposition to the Cultural Revolution and stunned his accusers by deftly using Marxist theory to support his assertions.25  His criticism of Jiang Qing and her art policies was so blatant and uncompromising  that authorities felt justified in sentencing him to death. Only the steady appeals of friends and family, who argued that he was still mentally ill, saved him from execution.


A Revised Identity: Indian Spirit-Kings and an Eastern Venus de Milo (1970)


ndian Sage-King

Figure 2.2   Shi Lu, Indian Sage-King  (1970 revision  of travel sketch drawn on site in India in 1955; inscriptions and other details altering an indigent wanderer  into a “spirit king” added in 1970). On the  left side, the vertical  inscription  describes the subject as “Indian  spirit-king  who captures tigers  and  traps dragons.” The large Chinese characters at the tip of the king’s staff (or sword) refer to the Russian author Leo Tolstoy and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. Wang Yushan and Cai Peixin, eds., Shi Lu. Zhongguo jin xiandai mingjia huaji [Shi Lu: Collected paintings by Chinese contemporary masters] (Beijing: People’s Art Press, 1996), 180.



In late 1969, Shi Lu received the welcome news that his “ox-shed” jail was to be closed down and that he could return home to the care of his family until his political case was resolved. Most artists at this time were sent out to the countryside as labourers, but Shi Lu’s unstable mental health and the legal claims against him argued for keeping him under the surveillance of workers’ groups now controlling the Xi’an Art Association.

Shi Lu seized the opportunity to return to painting. He locked himself in a small storeroom adjacent to the family apartment and refused to allow anyone to enter. Haphazardly scattered about the room were his art supplies and old paintings recently returned to him by workers’ groups. When his wife, Min Lisheng, quietly looked in on him from a window, she was shocked to observe him chatting and laughing as if to a friend. Recognizing that his mental condition had worsened, she made an excuse to force her way into  [Page 72] his studio, where she was bewildered to discover that Shi Lu was adding new subject matter and inscriptions  to the very 1950s-era paintings that had helped establish him as a famous communist  artist in China. The images he was revising were the closely observed studies he had made of fellow Third World men and women during the mid-1950s when he had toured Egypt and India under party auspices.


In the aftermath of his experience of persecution, Shi Lu’s finely drafted pictures of dignified proletarians from foreign lands underwent a stunning change. As the noted painter Wu Guanzhong remarked upon seeing these works later, their new subject matter “did not belong to India anymore.”26 Adding layer upon layer of red and black ink, Shi Lu encircled his old subjects with a new background of blood-red spider webs, menacing snakes, and flying bats. The sky around them is full of ancient symbols evocative of Neolithic pottery. Because he left their tranquil, self-confident expressions unchanged, these besieged persons seemed to show remarkable composure despite the dangers encompassing them. He added new inscriptions as well, some of which changed the identity of his subjects: the itinerant Indian monk in Figure 2.2 became a “spirit-king” who could “capture tigers and trap dragons”; an ordinary cart driver became the Greek god Apollo, guiding his chariot toward the sun. These mythical personas created from the raw material of his earlier Indian and Egyptian work constituted Shi Lu’s new pantheon of heroes. In fact, he identified so strongly with these “sky people” from Egypt and India that he signed Indian Spirit King with a new Indian pen name, Shi Gu Lumanden. To add to the aura of a shrine, he surrounded his subjects with enigmatic inscriptions honouring foreign luminaries including Rabindranath Tagore, Leo Tolstoy, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Edison. In the example reproduced at left (Figure 2.2), the names of Tagore and Tolstoy appear just below the spirit-king’s staff or sword.


Like his earlier Qu Yuan poem, Shi Lu’s revised paintings offer an opportunity to assess how persecution affected him spiritually. The intense imagery and the agitated brushwork of his additions plainly signal trauma. Given his refusal to modify a single aspect of his Mao Zedong portrait in the 1960s, his decision to drastically alter his previous works during the 1970s is certainly surprising. The impetus for revision was the outgrowth of Shi Lu’s wish, declared to his family in late 1969, to “say goodbye to his past” by making a clear demarcation between his pre–Cultural Revolution identity and that of its aftermath. He also destroyed all the personal name-chops he had used on paintings prior to the Cultural Revolution, as part of this self- proclaimed rebirth. [Page 73]


Shi Lu told his family that the revision of his old paintings stemmed from a certain discomfort he felt upon seeing them again and discovering that they no longer seemed “finished.” To resolve this newly perceived deficiency, he added lines to the faces and inserted the hidden dangers he now knew to be bedeviling his subjects. Because he believed that his paintings should reflect the inner stuff of his own personality, making a drastic alteration to conform to his current feelings felt perfectly logical as long as it was not imposed on him, as had been the case of the Mao portrait. These revised paintings attest to a fundamental transformation in Shi Lu’s worldview. By defacing his own 1950s-era portraits with spontaneous markings akin to graffiti, he disowned the rosy socialist-realist propaganda he had once espoused.


His Eastern Venus de Milo conveys a similar message of rupture and transformation (Figure 2.3). This completely new painting was produced in stages, its initial form subjected to a radical revision like his Indian and Egyptian work. Although Shi Lu’s children were not normally allowed to observe him painting, he made an exception in this instance, inviting them to watch as he prepared an exquisite fine-lined drawing on silk.27  Shi Lu’s son, Shi Guo, who aspired to be a painter, was astounded by his father’s masterful control of the brush as he worked on the goddess’ clothes and hair. Originally, the image featured only a female deity against a plain background; there were no inscriptions yet. The family thought it an exceptional creation, evidence that Shi Lu could still paint beautifully despite his many recent setbacks. What he did next, however, horrified them. Some months later, alone in his studio, he poured a bottle of bright red oil-based ink (commonly used for stamp pads) over the work, partially covering the goddess’ torso. Shi Lu’s wife complained that he had completely ruined the painting by making the goddess seem to float in an “ocean of blood.” Not long after, Shi Lu committed another radical act of desecration, scissoring the image into two. When his family asked for an explanation, he said he wanted to give half to his son and half to his daughter. Today, the painting is still severed at the middle. Its two sections must be pushed together if it is to be photographed as one piece.

The work’s inscription calls the female deity “Goddess of Beauty,” and another inscription at the bottom explains that she is actually an Eastern version of the Venus de Milo. In 1972, after Shi Lu decided to give the painting to his son, he added an inscription at the top, counselling him to “Never marry ugliness. Socialize only with beauty.” That he had earlier bathed the Venus in blood and severed her in half suggests a parallel to the brutal assault Shi Lu personally, and art generally, had experienced within [Page 74] the context of the Cultural  Revolution. The goddess retains a divine aura even in her diminished state, conveying Shi Lu’s faith in the sustainability of “Beauty” even in the direst of circumstances. The violence he visited on the painting after it was nominally complete, dousing it in red ink and cutting it with scissors, could be seen as a re-enactment of the emotional and physical wounds he received during the Cultural Revolution.


Eastern Venus de Milo

Figure 2.3    Shi Lu, Eastern Venus de Milo, alternatively titled   Goddess of Beauty (1970 ink drawing poured with red ink, inscriptions  added c. 1972). The drawing is in two parts, as a result of the artist cutting it with scissors. As a whole, its dimensions are 100 by 90 centimetres. Shi Lu: A Retrospective (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture, 1987), Figure 22


According to his son’s memoirs, no conflict was more profound for Shi Lu than the sense of betrayal he felt with regard to his former idol. For him, the break with Mao had severe psychological consequences, “as if an axe had cut him into two.”28 Eastern Venus de Milo attests to both the severity of Shi Lu’s injury and his will to survive the strain. Although Shi Lu’s family was distressed by his apparent disregard for the integrity of what they considered an admirable work, they found that its inscriptions, which he added in about 1972, conveyed a serious message. Buried in the painting’s lower inscription is what might be taken as the artist’s own Cultural Revolution motto: “Those who respect ‘beauty’ can transform themselves from smallness to good health.” Defining “beauty” as entailing more than physical appearance, he advised his son (to whom he had now dedicated the painting) that beauty was inseparable from virtue. Ugliness was the state of “having no kindness in your eyes.” At the conclusion of this inscription, Shi Lu again made reference to his own profound personal transformation, signing it with “Shi Lu just before the switching point between old and new.”


Shi Lu’s Art as a Product of His Illness


Shi Lu’s children remember the brief half-year period from late 1969 to the summer  of 1970, when he created his revised paintings and Eastern Venus de Milo, as a strange dream-like phase in his life.29  Until 1987, the family  remained reluctant to exhibit these works, for fear that they would be dismissed as the by-products of insanity. The ten or so paintings created during this time possess a surrealistic quality unlike any others in Shi Lu’s oeuvre. His tenuous connection with everyday reality after years of incarceration led him to bend his observational powers inward, to visualize a landscape of gods and goddesses, of ancient symbols and crowded inscriptions, as an expression of his own mental turbulence. Not long after he finished Eastern Venus de Milo in fact, his illness became so severe that his family convinced party authorities to have him institutionalized for a second time. When he returned home in 1971, he was so heavily sedated that he found it difficult to paint. Determined not to become a “retarded person,” he threw away his [Page 75] pills. Once his mind cleared and he began to paint again, he seldom depicted human figures. He developed a more sparing and quiet style of painting and calligraphy focusing on traditional scholarly subjects such as flowers and mountains.


If mental illness is conceived as a condition in which the affected person loses touch with reality, how credible are Shi Lu’s “mad” paintings as an indicator of his political opinions? Did illness open a space for him that conferred special vision, or was it a hindrance to his art, rendering it confused and unintelligible? Schizophrenia, in particular, is typically seen as a sensory and cognitive deficiency that robs its subjects of life potential and confines them in a solitary delusional world. How is one to explain, then, that the onset of the disease appears to have had the opposite effect in Shi Lu’s case? A plausible argument might be that, within the context of the Cultural Revolution, a brain that was internally occupied and impervious to the outside world was actually a healthy orientation. Shi Lu’s tangential connection to consensual reality gave him the sense of distance he needed in order to contemplate his situation from a remove and loosen his ties to social conventions. Though his language was at times disorganized and his sensory perceptions distorted, his thinking on political matters became more discerning and candid rather than increasingly confused. Despite his obvious physical and mental challenges, he did not stagnate but continued to accomplish stunning innovation in his artistic and personal development.


The Cultural Revolution, like the Nazi Holocaust or Stalin’s reign of terror, was such a dark tunnel in history that persons subjected to its fury would be perfectly justified in going mad or committing suicide.30 When the extreme situation of the historical context is appreciated, Shi Lu’s psychosis appears to be a rather logical response, a type of allergic reaction, to a profound social malady. A true believer in communism, he was set adrift spiritually and emotionally at his betrayal by the leader he had idolized. Schizophrenia aided him in detaching himself from moorings that had proved false. Art enabled him to climb out of the wreckage of a broken ideology to find a new anchor. Mental illness never completely derailed this tortured process of growth; indeed, the unhinging of ties to social conventions, symptomatic of schizophrenia, may have accelerated this transformation.


Shi Lu’s behaviour, as described retrospectively by family and friends, as well as his mid-1960s medical diagnosis of schizophrenia, is consistent with so-called atypical psychosis, or brief reactive psychosis, discussed in current medical literature.31 This milder, less chronic expression of schizophrenia is bound primarily in developing areas such as China and Africa, and is said to be characterized by “a dream-like state with slight clouding of consciousness [Page 76] and perplexity.”32 Patients with this version of schizophrenia are thought to recover more quickly and more completely than their Western counterparts. Its onset typically occurs in a sudden burst, usually in response to a blow to self-esteem or another commensurate psychic event. Thus, if Shi Lu had this atypical, benign form of schizophrenia rather than the Western equivalent, his ability to continue writing and painting productively even while ill makes sense. We need not react to him as some of his radical contemporaries did, presuming that he was simply “faking” it all along.


This is not to deny that Shi Lu took advantage of his illness for the extra immunity it gave him to think and behave in an oppositional manner. Clearly, he engaged in play-acting, performing the role of madman as a strategy for protest within the extremely repressive environment of the Cultural Revolution. In his lucid periods, he could draw on his memories of his real psychosis to re-enact madness theatrically. Shi Lu understood himself as part of a romantic tradition of poets and painters who either feigned madness or slipped in and out of genuine insanity in response to political and social evils. At times, he seemed to impersonate the diary-writing madman of Lu Xun’s famous short story who shouted at humanity to stop “eating men.”33 Others have described his theatrical madness as reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Cervantes’ Don Quixote.34 On such occasions, he “performed” madness rather than suffered from it. By invoking famous characters from literature, he not only connected his predicament to a broader human story but also signalled a discerning audience that he was still capable of exercising choice. Mental illness affected his life and his art, but it was his companion in artistic enterprise rather than an overriding force that robbed him of his capacity to navigate his own destiny.35


From both the Cultural Revolution and schizophrenia, Shi Lu harvested a more penetrating knowledge of himself. Suffering wore him down physically and emotionally, but surviving both traumas enhanced his metacognition. Understanding that history had cast him in a far-fetched drama, he would not simply perform a starring role – he would also narrate this bizarre tale for future generations. He emerged from the catastrophe deter mined to prepare an archive of paintings and poetry capable of transmitting a witness account of both a personal and a national tragedy.


Diary of an Upside-Down Plum


By the time Shi Lu returned from his second hospitalization in late 1971, the political situation had significantly improved. The hypocrisy of the Cultural Revolution had been exposed when Lin Biao, champion of the cult of Mao, [Page 77] died during an attempt to flee to the Soviet Union following the failure of an alleged coup to topple the chairman. Lin Biao was willing to betray Mao in the end, although he was ostensibly Mao’s biggest supporter. As the radicals’ grip on power lessened, the pragmatists led by Premier Zhou Enlai re-established ascendancy. China’s new special relationship with the United States, as a hedge against the Soviet Union, also encouraged policy changes beneficial to artists. In 1972, the Foreign Ministry invited Shi Lu not only to return to teaching art students, but also to produce paintings for display in recently opened foreign embassies and hotels, and for resale in Hong Kong to earn foreign currency. Welcoming this return to respectability, he thrust himself back into the Xi’an art community with great energy. He painted prolifically during this period and acquired an enthusiastic following among young artists who privately respected his innovative style.


Unfortunately, this honeymoon period lasted only until late 1973. At that point, the Cultural Revolution Group led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, launched a counteroffensive against Premier Zhou Enlai and his supporters – the Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius movement, a strained attempt to reaffirm the Cultural Revolution and to forestall Zhou Enlai’s efforts to roll it back. Although the premier was not directly named as its target, diminishing his power was in fact one of its key political objectives. The Cultural Revolution Group sought to portray Zhou Enlai’s rehabilitation of purged intellectuals and cadres as dangerous backsliding. Radical propaganda warned the populace that modern disciples of Confucius now threatened to undermine China’s revolutionary future by advocating a return to feudalism and a restoration of the Confucian rites. For an artist such as Shi Lu, who had been a conspicuous beneficiary of Zhou Enlai’s policies, the Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius movement ushered in yet another phase of incrimination. He was identified as the “number one black painter” in Shaanxi Province; his old friend Zhao Wangyun, who had accompanied him on the Egypt and India tour in 1955, ranked just below him. Authorities organized a group of scholars to examine Shi Lu’s paintings and prepare a report detailing the counter-revolutionary content of each one. The 1974 report was prefaced with the following biographical summary accusing Shi Lu of “advocating the road of Confucius and Mencius”:


    Shi Lu is the vice-president of the former Xi’an Art Association. He came from a vicious landlord family. He always insisted on a reactionary stance. He was part of the “Wild, Strange, Chaotic and Black” school of painting. He not only created reactionary paintings, but he used his position to advocate a counter-revolutionary art road against Mao Zedong [Page 78] thought. During the Cultural Revolution, a lot of people criticized his crimes. Shi Lu responded to this with deep hatred. For several years, he pretended insanity, resisting the investigations of the party and the masses. He continued to secretly make reactionary paintings and poetry. He advocated the road of Confucius and Mencius. He attacked the Proletarian Dictatorship, wishing to bring reactionary ghosts back to life. The contagion spread by these examples of reactionary painting and calligraphy is extremely serious. Businessmen in Macao have paid large sums of money to buy them, and the influence is very bad.36


Representatives of the Cultural Revolution Group seized a cache of Shi Lu’s works awaiting export in Tianjin and made them the focus of a black painting exhibition in Xi’an.37 Authorities highlighted one of these – a depiction of blossoming plum branches drooping downward – as an example of the artist’s alleged self-pity and unwillingness to accept the bad luck of his fallen status. Only a photograph of the original work survives, but another plum painted by Shi Lu in 1972 conveys its spirit (Figure 2.4). Shi Lu’s political enemies mounted a shrill attack on his plum painting as a tool to discredit him.38 Their interpretation was based on a pun linking the “upside-down plum” of Shi Lu’s picture with the phrase “it’s a pity” (both phrases are pronounced “dao mei”). They had some basis for making this connection: the convention of interpreting downward-pointing plum branches as representing the distressed circumstances of the artist began with the Ming dynasty painter Xu Wei, who famously made this assessment on a fourteenth-century plum blossom painting by Wang Mian. Shi Lu was, in fact, drawing on the plum’s established symbolism to signal corrupt political times but not in the simpleminded way that his critics claimed. Indeed, the tone of the poem he wrote on the disparaged painting was not at all self-pitying:


    Snow makes the plum proud;
    Cold makes its blossoms plentiful;
    Slowly dancing in the remaining wind,
    Looking for spring’s possibility to grow taller.


Another plum painting Shi Lu produced in late 1973 vigorously defended the plum’s dignity and denied the validity of the pun associating it with self-pity or hard luck: “From this horizontal branch, the world looks vast. Don’t call it a pitiful flower. It is a plum flower.”39 [Page 79]


Winter Plum Illustration (1972)

Figure 2.4   Shi Lu, Winter Plum Illustration (1972) inscribed with Chairman Mao’s 1961 poem “Winter Plum.” The original painting criticized during the black painting exhibition of 1974 was lost. Shi Lu executed another exact copy of it in 1978. The work reproduced here was created  around  the  same  time  as  the  repudiated version  and  also  portrays  plum  blossom branches pointing downward. In it, Shi Lu copied the text of Mao’s 1961 poem “Winter Plum” verbatim. On the repudiated version, however, he inscribed his own poem on the same theme as Mao’s “Winter Plum.” Yu Yingpo and Liu Jiming, eds., Shi Lu huaji/Shi Lu hui [Shi Lu painting collection/Shi Lu drawings] (Beijing: People’s Art Press, 2006), 2:330.  [Page 80]



Like the hearty plum celebrated in Confucian literature for blossoming in the midst of winter, Shi Lu had accomplished the rare feat of continuing his artistic life in a hostile political climate. His poems on the plum paintings implied that persecution had not extinguished his vision, but rather, sharpened and extended it. Because its red blossoms burst forth even before warm temperatures arrived, the plum was associated in Chinese tradition with the inner strength of a superior scholar who withstands hardship to usher in better times.40  Drawing on this ancient symbolism, Shi Lu considered the plum a fitting emblem for his own moral toughness and redness – for his revolutionary purity in the face of the Cultural Revolution.


In a telling gesture, he affixed a photograph of the repudiated plum painting to the cover of his private poetry journal. In this treasured upside-down plum diary, he collected poems, sketches, and fables. During the height of the black painting exhibition, fearing that his house would be searched and the diary confiscated, he gave it to a trusted friend for safe-keeping. Working on it exclusively at night from 1973 to 1975, he used the diary as the repository for his replies to the claims of detractors. Shi Lu told his son that he considered the poetry inscribed in this diary to be the greatest accomplishment of his later years.41


Summoning Confucius Back to the Castle


Within the pages of his plum diary, Shi Lu offered insights into the meaning of one of his most enigmatic revised works, Indian Fort (Figure 2.5). The original sketch featured the red sandstone gateway of an ancient rampart built by sixteenth-century Mughal emperors in Old Delhi.42 Shi Lu produced it on-site in 1955, when he toured India with a delegation of Chinese painters. According to his family, he revised the image in 1970, adding a profusion of details in red and black ink to imbue the ruins of the Indian castle with the aura of a spiritual domain. Precisely when he added the long inscriptions above, beside, and below the castle is not clear. The content of these inscriptions argues for a post-1970 date because the homage to Confucius and the anger vented at the Cultural Revolution Group suggest that Shi Lu was directly responding to the Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius movement of 1973-74. 


In the left-hand inscription in black ink, Shi Lu chastises the current leadership for attempting to cut off China from its ancient history and “publicly expounding lies as if they were truth.” Complaining about the ridiculousness of acting as if China has no ancestry, he shouts back at the radical iconoclasts who have no respect for tradition: “Strike down your [Page 81] false slogan: ‘Favour the present and slight the ancient!’” Within the same inscription, he bemoans the current restrictions placed on people of talent and suggests that they can find creative outlets other than their chosen fields: “The ones who are good at building are forbidden to build. Those who are not allowed to paint can become scientists. How many know that Confucius is now a painter?”



In the middle of the inscription, Shi Lu elaborates upon his notion that Confucius has a hidden identity by making the surprising claim that the sage is not only a painter, but a carpenter too. He asserts that Confucius and the master carpenter Lu Ban (who, like Confucius, came from the region of Lu and is typically thought of as his contemporary) are actually one and the same. At the top of the painting, in what appears to be the revised image’s title, he inscribed “The Vast Tower Recognizing the Heart of Lu Ban.” Thus, he has transformed the travel sketch of the Indian fort into a pantheon dedicated to China’s most famous philosopher and legendary carpenter, whom history had misconstrued as two different people. In fact, Shi Lu asserts that this combined personality of Confucius and Lu Ban not only made a pilgrimage to the site but actually built the castle itself. [Page 82]  


It would be tempting to dismiss the far-fetched claims in the inscriptions as unintelligible and to attribute them to schizophrenia. Certainly, their connections are eccentric and fluid, and the mode of expression is difficult to follow. But reading the long inscriptions on this painting in conjunction with the fable of Confucius that Shi Lu wrote in his diary yields important clues regarding his thoughts when he made these assertions. It is quite possible that Lu Ban was a pseudonym or alter ego for Shi Lu himself. The “Lu” in the two names is expressed with the same Chinese character. By invoking Lu Ban specifically, Shi Lu may have been making a sly joke about the incompetency of the Cultural Revolution–era authorities assigned to condemn his paintings. A common traditional saying “plying the axe in front of Lu Ban” refers to shameless amateurs who display their lack of skill before an acknowledged master.43  By affiliating his castle with the master craftsman Lu Ban, Shi Lu restored an honoured status to the experts victimized during the Cultural  Revolution and scorned those who demeaned them. The apparently nonsensical claims of his inscriptions – that Confucius was a painter who went to India – may be hints that “Confucius” is simply another name for himself. Shi Lu had been pejoratively linked to Confucius during the Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius movement of 1973-74. Although Confucius never went to India, Shi Lu did, in 1955. Although Confucius did not build the castle, Shi Lu did, at least a version of it on paper. [Page 83]


ndian Fort/Tower to Recognize the Heart of Lu Ban

Figure 2.5    Indian Fort/Tower to Recognize the Heart of Lu Ban (1970 revision of a 1955 travel sketch on site at Old Fort, Old Delhi; the red and black elements, and inscriptions,  were added later, apparently during the Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius Movement of 1973-74). The latter part of the title is inscribed at the top in large black characters and signed by Shi Lu. Yu Yingpo and Liu Jiming, eds., Shi Lu huaji/Shi Lu hui [Shi Lu painting collection/Shi  Lu drawings] (Beijing: People’s Art Press, 2006), 2:304.




Shi Liu, Confucius (1975-1975)

Figure 2.6    Shi Lu, Confucius (1974-75). Drawing in red and black ink, a page in Shi Lu’s Diary of the Denounced Plum. Author photograph, private collection.



The Confucius fable in Shi Lu’s plum diary makes it clear that Shi Lu and Confucius are meant to shade into one another as a kind of blended personality. Shi Lu explains this affinity with Confucius as based on a similar personality, described variously as one that loves truth-telling, identifies with the common people, and has a romantic vision.44 His Confucius narrative often departs from historical fact and takes on an unmistakable auto- biographical flavour. For example, Confucius becomes a beggar (like Shi Lu, who wandered Sichuan after his 1969 escape) and witnesses scorched fields in the midst of a horrible famine (probably a reference to Shi Lu’s 1959 tour of Shaanxi Province at the time of the Great Leap Forward). The image of Confucius, drawn in red and black ink in the plum diary, bears an unmistakable resemblance to Shi Lu’s pre–Cultural Revolution appearance (Figure 2.6). Confucius’ body is slender like Shi Lu’s, and his face is open and gentle. During the Cultural Revolution, Shi Lu was known to dress in a simple white robe evocative of a Confucian scholar in mourning. The conjecture that the image of Confucius is a covert self-portrait is strengthened by the fact that two other sketches in the diary are clear self-portraits: in one, Shi Lu guards a spiritual garden; in the other, he pays homage to poetry on his own gravestone.45


In his diary, Shi Lu identifies the drawing of Confucius with a statue he says he discovered on a hill near the Purana Qila (Old Fort) in Old Delhi:


    In 1955 when I went to India, I was captivated by the red fort, a building from ancient times. With excitement I gathered my painting tools and climbed to the top. My spirit felt expansive and yet sad and lonely. I turned my body around and felt a powerful wind from the ancient building blow on my face. My spirit longed to return to its origins. My writings on the subject are muddled like a dream or a puzzle. In a mental haze I saw a kind of spiritual temple. An ancient inscription read something like “Honoured Confucius.” The Indian people created a statue of Confucius wearing a tall cap and plain cotton clothing. I saw ancient words inscribed on his sash, so I moved closer to examine them. What a surprise! Amazing! Why did Confucius go to India?46

Revising his 1955 Indian Fort in 1970, Shi Lu added a statue of Confucius–Lu Ban to the open arch above the ancient gateway. Like many of the spiritual figures in his reworked paintings, it is executed in red, a colour that, for this artist, appears to have been emblematic of bloodshed in defence of revolutionary ideals. On the right side of the image, Shi Lu painted [Page 84] a stone carving in archaic style honouring Confucius and Lu Ban as holy sages. At the bottom, he created another stylized stone carving purportedly inscribed by the ancient calligrapher Wang Xizhi. Playing upon the fact that the cylindrical towers of the fort resemble missiles, Shi Lu cum Wang Xizhi named the castle Cosmos Missile Platform, as if it were the site [Page 85] from which a powerful weapon could be hurled. In likening a castle dedicated to Confucius to a launch pad for a nuclear missile, Shi Lu created a vivid metaphor for implying the power of ethical ideas. Perhaps he was also pointing out the absurdity of Cold War governments, which invested so much effort in bomb making but so little in cultivating the spirit.


Why did Shi Lu associate the ancient Indian fort with such transformative energy? According to his son, he truly did experience an epiphany of sorts during his 1955 trip to India. Visiting ancient ruins and leaving China for the first time in his life sharpened his appreciation for ancient Chinese learning. When he returned home in 1956, he devoted himself to developing new ways to sketch landscapes and people based on Chinese brushwork. In locating his romantic heroes in the India of his imagination during the Cultural Revolution, he may have been influenced by the hero of his youth, the author Lu Xun, whom he had honoured in his choice of pen name. In the opening paragraphs of his famous 1908 essay “On the Power of Mara Poetry,” Lu Xun had used India as a focal point for describing the dilemma of ancient civilizations that had become “arid” in recent times.47  Of course, Lu Xun’s commentary on India implied criticism of China too, but he danced around the obvious so skillfully that his commentary acquired an ironic quality rendering it more interesting and effective. According to Lu Xun, “shadow lands” like India lost their splendour as their cultures became “shriveled.” However, the voice of the soul, the source of poetry, remained palpable there. They could be regenerated if there were maverick thinkers bold enough to challenge the status quo, in the manner of Mara, the Indian god of destruction. Lu Xun bemoaned the fact that China had not yet produced a Mara poet capable of pushing against ingrained culture with sufficient force to catalyze the old society into evolving into a modern nation. Perhaps Shi Lu was thinking of Lu Xun’s essay and imagining himself as a Mara poet when he reworked his old travel sketches to give the Indian figures and terrain a spiritual aura.


The inscriptions he added to Indian Fort suggest that he thought of the old structure as a symbol of China’s besieged national character. For him, the abandoned ruin must have conjured associations with China’s ancient civilization in a state of neglect and disesteem during the Cultural Revolution. In his 1908 manifesto on Mara poetry, Lu Xun had warned that, unless China stopped killing off its Qu Yuans – its truth-telling poets – it would never become vigorous again.48 In the red-ink inscription  above the castle, which is interspersed with flying bats (or crows?), Shi Lu wrote a poem in which he mourned the absence of Confucius: [Page 86]


    Funny how no one talks of Confucius any more;
    The Yellow Crane Pavilion is now an empty ruin.
    White clouds pass by without lingering.
    Ridiculous that the Han emperor let it fall vacant.


This poem offers a pointed indictment of what the Cultural Revolution’s razing of tradition and disregard for ethics meant for the Chinese nation. Its final line suggests that the founding emperor of the Han dynasty (readable as Mao) is responsible for allowing China’s national character to become a hollow shell. As in his Qu Yuan poem, Shi Lu asserts that the artist can play an active role in repairing this barren situation. Through the intervention of his brush and ink, he summoned the spirit of Confucius back to the empty castle. A hollow ruin was revitalized because the artist as carpenter (Lu Ban) restored Confucius’ statue to an honoured place within the national temple.


Admonishing Qin Shihuang


Shi Lu’s anger toward Mao, hinted at in his painting and poetry, is confirmed within the pages of his private diary written from 1973 to 1975. The fable in which Confucius encounters Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor, dramatically reveals his total break with his romantic idol.50 Its references to Qin Shihuang clearly applied to Mao, for Mao had consciously identified himself with the emperor since 1958. Although Qin Shihuang had traditionally been viewed negatively for his brutal treatment of scholars and Confucian learning, Mao had attempted to reverse this logic by candidly approving of his actions in burning books and burying scholars. In 1958, speaking to party members, he asked, “What does Qin Shihuang amount to? He buried only four hundred and sixty scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive. Haven’t we killed counter-revolutionary intellectuals? In my debates with some members of the minor democratic parties, I told them: ‘You revile us for being Qin Shihuangs, for being dictators. We have always admitted this. It’s a pity you didn’t go far enough, and we have frequently had to augment what you have said.’”51


Mao’s decision to launch the Cultural Revolution was consistent with his positive re-evaluation of Qin Shihuang and his affirmation of “revolutionary violence” as a means to destroy class enemies. According to his Marxist-inspired conception, a modern-day burning of books and burying of scholars was a completely justified and urgently required intervention to [Page 87] preserve the proletarian revolution. If reactionary forces were not snuffed out, history would stagnate or slip backward rather than surging ahead.


Shi Lu felt repulsed by the wrong-headed logic and facile justification of violence underpinning Mao’s positive evaluation of Qin Shihuang. To exterminate all the intelligent people and bury their knowledge, he protested, was an absurdly short-sighted policy. In his fable, he blended a critique of Mao’s frenetic steel-making campaign (the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61) with a discussion of the Qin state’s proliferation of iron technology. His fable subtly interweaves the personality of Qin Shihuang with that of Mao to signal that a reference to one entails the other. As narrator of the fable, Shi Lu asserts that Qin Shihuang pursued iron making with such relentless ambition that his face itself turned to iron, robbing him of the humility and humaneness necessary for governing:


    Qin Shihuang made a very big beginning but he did not know how to foster it to the end... Later he gave a big speech about wanting to control the country. It did not matter that it would cost blood. He became iron-faced, showing no sympathy. This earned him the ridicule of later generations. In a rage he threw (his advisor) Li Si into a big pot. Once he destroyed all the knowledge, Qin devoted everything to ironwork. He became a slave in his heart despite his hatred for slavery. He became iron-hearted. Obsessed with the thought of living a life without rust, even in death Qin Shihuang wanted to be buried in iron ore.52



As a young revolutionary at Yan’an, Shi Lu had felt pride to be told that his face was similar to Mao’s and had once inscribed a picture of a face resembling Mao’s and his own with the boast “This face will explode the twentieth century!”53 Now his sketch of Qin Shihuang (Figure 2.7) attested to his renunciation of Mao. The two portraits of Confucius and Qin Shihuang in the same diary are sharply differentiated; no one could possibly identify them as depictions of the same person. Qin Shihuang’s broad, flat face looks unmistakably like that of the aging Mao. It is not a complimentary portrait! According to its inscription, the emperor’s clothes are “tattered,” his mouth is “drooling,” and “his nose running.” He is dreaming of a wildly ambitious iron-making campaign. His robe and face are outlined in black ink, without a trace of revolutionary red. In contrast, the portrait of Confucius is calm and dignified.  The sage’s robe is made of cotton and outlined in red, an expression of his strong identification with the common people. These contrasting portraits confirm that a once blended revolutionary personality has been divided in two. Shi Lu positioned himself on one side [Page 88 of the political schism, declaring his affinity with Confucius and forswearing the ruthless men of action and expediency, Mao Zedong and Qin Shihuang.


In the fable, Confucius tries unsuccessfully to persuade Qin Shihuang to use “the mild, humane way to govern,” but the emperor, an earthy man of limited vision, an artisan turned dictator, foolishly relates every problem to iron making. Shi Lu registers special disapproval of the way in which Qin [Page 89] Shihuang became the “Golden Mouth” for all of society: “Everything he said, all had to follow.” The emperor’s true agenda is to “shake the nerves” of society so as to bring about a momentous change, but he fails to think his plan through. Had he had been willing “to explore his own shortcomings” and develop a deeper understanding of the country’s challenges, he would not have produced so much damage, and history’s evaluation of him would be positive. Despite this pointed critique, Shi Lu extends sympathy to the failed emperor: “Who truly understands the sadness of Qin Shihuang?” He also attributes good intentions to him: “He tried to do the right thing but it just turned out wrong.”54


 Qin Shihuang (1974-75)

Figure 2.7    Shi Lu, Qin Shihuang (1974-75). Drawing in black ink, a page in Shi Lu’s Diary of the Denounced Plum. Author photograph, private collection.


Even prior to the Cultural Revolution, Shi Lu’s Mao-centred faith had eroded around the edges. When Fighting in Northern Shaanxi was rejected and persecution ensued, he felt as though an axe had split his revolutionary ideology in two. By the 1970s, his belief in communism had been drastically whittled down to its most cogent, defensible claims and reoriented away from his former idol. At the end of his life, Shi Lu still affirmed the Yan’an communism he once identified with Mao – that is, the promise of an emancipated life and a robust nation more egalitarian than ever before. But now the balancing centre of his ideals was his own expansive personality in a broad and fluid conversation with the world’s great thinkers. He spent the remainder of his life pursuing a “self-revolution” in visual art. In his paintings of flowers and mountains, he developed an intensely personal calligraphy style alternating between “lean” and “fat” characters. For viewers who knew of his distressed circumstances, the lean characters suggested analogues for his body, worn thin by suffering; the fat ones were evocative of the wet properties of tears and blood.55


During the Cultural Revolution, Shi Lu summoned Confucius back to his worldview as a way to cope with the strain of an identity crisis and as a social corrective for the deficiencies of Maoism. As he slowly excluded Mao from his revolutionary pantheon, the romantic cosmopolitanism of the New Culture era and the ethics nurtured by his Confucian schooling resurfaced. In stubbornly resisting, deeply thinking, and constantly creating throughout his suffering, Shi Lu proved himself a worthy heir to the quest for a fully developed personhood associated in his mind with Shitao, Lu Xun, and Confucius. [Page 90]







1   On biographical details in this paragraph and throughout the chapter, see the excellent memoir by the artist’s son, Shi Guo, Shi Lu hua lun [A discussion of Shi Lu's painting] (Zhengzhou: Henan People’s Press, 1999), 5. Shi Lu’s daughter, Shi Dan, and his friend and fellow artist Ye Jian, have also published authoritative commentary on Shi Lu’s life and art. Shi Dan, Shi Lu, Zhongguo minghuajia quanji [Shi Lu: Collected works of famous Chinese painters] (Hebei: Hebei  Educational  Press, 2003); Ye Jian, “Art Is Valued for Its Originality – An Account of the Chinese Eccentric Painter – Shi Lu,” in Shi Lu shuhua ji [Shi Lu collected calligraphy and painting], ed. Mao Junyan (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1990), 90-99. Valuable new material has been collected in Ye Jian and Shi Dan, eds., Shi Lu yishu wenji [Shi Lu’s art-related literary works] (Xi’an: Shaanxi People’s Art Press, 2003).


2  For more details on these controversies, see Shelley Drake Hawks, “‘Painting by Candlelight’ during the Cultural Revolution: Defending Autonomy and Expertise under Maoist Rule (1949-1976)” (PhD  diss., Brown University, 2003). I am presently working on a volume for publication titled Garden of My Name: Painters’ Stories of Resistance during China’s Cultural Revolution. The fallout from a romantic involvement with a student further complicated Shi Lu’s relations with his wife and his work unit. See Li Shinan, Kuang ge dang ku – ji Shi Lu [A mad song in place of crying – Remembering Shi Lu] (Zhengzhou: Henan People’s Press, 1997), 162-63. Li Shinan was an aspiring young artist who became Shi Lu’s private student during the 1970s. His memoir offers another insider perspective on Shi Lu’s Cultural Revolution years.


3  Ibid., 1-5.


4 These include Ding Cong, Li Keran, Li Kuchan, Huang Yongyu, and Feng Zikai. For another notable example of private resistance, see the “Prison  Notes” written by Mu Xin during his solitary confinement in 1971-72 and published in The Art of Mu Xin: Landscapes and Prison Notes (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2001).


5  The phrase “burning books and burying scholars alive” is commonly used to describe the atrocities committed during Qin Shihuang’s reign. In 213 BCE, Qin Shihuang ordered privately owned Confucian  classics to be burned, and a year afterward, had more than 460 scholars buried alive in a mass grave. Later scholars condemned Qin Shihuang’s tyranny, but Chairman Mao championed a reappraisal, arguing that his actions were necessary in order to push history forward. For more background on controversies surrounding Qin Shihuang, see Li Yu-ning, ed., The First Emperor of China: The Politics of Historiography (White Plains: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1975).


6 On remonstrating courage, see William Theodore de Bary, Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 19-21.


7  John Berthrong describes Confucius  as follows: “Here is a man, who, in his own words, knows he will not always be successful, but keeps on trying because he can do no other.” Berthrong, Transformations  of the Confucian Way (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 22.


8  Shi Lu so admired Shitao’s treatise on art, Hua Yu Lu (Notes on painting), that he wrote a kind of sequel to it titled Xue Hua Lu (Notes on the study of painting) while on sick leave in 1963. Although the original text was lost when his home was raided during the Cultural Revolution, parts of his treatise were preserved and distributed in the form of criticism materials published by his opponents to show proof of his errors in thought. A more complete, authoritative version of Xue Hua Lu, prepared from the notebook of one of Shi Lu’s students, is published in Ye and Shi, Shi Lu yishu wenji, 147-69. On Shitao’s Hua Yu Lu, see Jonathan Hay, Shitao: Painting and Modernity  in Early Qing China  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 272-81; and Chou Ju-hsi, “In Quest of the Primordial Line: The Genesis and Content of Tao-chi’s Hua-yu-lu” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1970). Shitao’s influence on Shi Lu is also discussed in the author’s work in progress Garden of My Name.


9  See Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); and Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman, “How Bodies Remember: Social Memory and Bodily Experience of Criticism,  Resistance, and Delegitimation  Following China’s Cultural Revolution,” New Literary History 25 (1994): 707-23.


10  This work appears on the cover of Julia F. Andrews, Painters and  Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Andrews insightfully discusses it on pages 236-38. Visually stunning and monumental in scale, it was also exhibited in New York during the landmark Guggenheim Museum show of 1998. See Julia  F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition  in the Art of Twentieth-Century China (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), Figure 141; Andrews and Shen describe the work on page  231. The author saw the painting when it was exhibited in New York.


11   For Shi Lu’s discussion of the approval process, see his “Meishujia bixu yao mei” [Artists must honour beauty], notes from a speech delivered on 9 March 1979 to the Standing Committee of the Chinese Artists’ Association, in Ye and Shi, Shi Lu yishu wenji, 305.


12 Li, Kuang ge dang ku, 5.


13  On the Lushan conference, see Roderick  MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, vol. 2, The Great Leap Forward (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 187-251.


14  Ma Gaihu, “Zhuiyi Shi Lu tongzhi chuangzuo ‘Zhuanzhan Shaanbei’ de qingkuang” [Recalling the situation surrounding Comrade Shi Lu’s creating “Fighting in Northern Shaanxi”], special supplement memorializing Shi Lu, Meishu Tongxun (25 August 1985): 59-60. Of course, human figures are typically depicted on a small scale in traditional Chinese landscape paintings.


15   Shi, “Meishujia bixu yao mei,” in Ye and Shi, Shi Lu yishu wenji, 304-6.


16  Ma, “Zhuiyi Shi Lu tongzhi chuangzuo ‘Zhuanzhan Shaanbei’ de qingkuang,” 59-60.


17  During the early 1960s, Shi Lu was one of the leading voices insisting upon the need to leave room for the imagination in painting. One of the themes discussed in a review of his work was his preference for rich content that invited viewers to reach conclusions on their own. Hua Hsia, “The Paintings of Shi Lu,” Chinese Literature, January  1962, 91-97.


18 The poem “Heavenly Questions,” popularly attributed to Qu Yuan, is translated in Qu Yuan, Ch’u Tz’u: Songs of the South, trans. David Hawkes (Oxford: Clarendon, 1959), 45-58. Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), minister of the Kingdom  of Chu, was slandered by another courtier and sent into exile by his king. While in exile, the grieving poet-official composed laments before eventually committing suicide. Lionized for maintaining his loyalty and inner strength despite his unjust banishment, he is one of Chinese tradition’s most enduring heroes. In the first and fourth stanzas of his own poem, Shi Lu refers to questioning heaven, thus explicitly  relating his work to Qu Yuan’s “Heavenly Questions.” I would like to acknowledge Fusheng Wu’s assistance in explaining specific linkages between Shi Lu’s poem and those of Qu Yuan.


19  According  to ancient Chinese legend, Yi the Archer rescued humanity by shooting down all but one of the sun god’s nine unruly sons, who had refused to leave the sky and were scorching the earth. Subsequently, the sun god grew angry at the loss of so many of his sons and banished Yi and his wife to earth. In one version of the story, Yi attempts to usurp the Xia dynasty. Shi Lu’s assertion that he never “tried to change the star” attests to his loyalty to the Communist Party.


20  Cang Jie is a legendary figure known as the inventor of Chinese characters.


21  Nu Wa was a mythological healing goddess and benefactor of humanity. According to legend, she repaired the sky after two quarrelling  gods knocked over its supporting pillar.


22  Some years after he initially composed this poem, Shi Lu recorded it in his private diary, c. 1973-75. The poetry  diary  is in a private collection. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Fusheng Wu, Peihui Wang, and Susan Edwards Richmond, among others, for advice on my translation.


23 Confucius likened a virtuous ruler to the pole star, “which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place.” Confucius: The Analects, Book  2.1, trans. D.C. Lau (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 63.


24  Shi Lu’s behaviour following his recapture is discussed in Shi, Shi Lu hua lun, 30. In characterizing radical Maoists as a “new aristocracy,” Shi Lu may have been influenced by post-Stalin critiques of the communist system voiced by Milovan  Djilas and others. See Djilas, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist  System (New York: Praeger Perspectives, 1958).


25 Shi Lu wrote this confession statement, dated 14 December 1969, at a time when  he was under considerable pressure to admit to political  crimes in order to be released. However, the tone in which he registered his doubts and opposition to radical Maoist policies does seem to have an air of authenticity.


26  Wu Guanzhong, “Shi Lu de ‘qiang’ ji qita” [Shi Lu’s “operatic tune” and other matters], Meishu [Fine arts]9 (September 1983): 42. For Shi Lu’s revised paintings, see Liu Xilin, “Shi Lu de lucheng yu yishu feng shen” [Shi Lu’s travels and the spirit of his artistic style], in Shi Lu. Zhongguo jin xiandai mingjia huaji [Shi Lu: Collected paintings by Chinese contemporary  masters], ed. Wang Yushan and Cai Peixin (Beijing: People’s Art Press, 1996), 142-43, 177-84.


27 On Shi Guo’s memories regarding this painting, see Shi Guo, “Shi Lu hua ‘Meidianshen’ ji” [Remembering Shi Lu’s painting the “Goddess of Beauty”], Rongbaozhai 10 (1999): 289-93.


28  Shi, Shi Lu hua lun, 21.


29  Shi, Shi Lu, Zhongguo minghuajia  quanji, 148-62. See also Shi, “Shi Lu hua ‘Meidianshen’ ji,” 291.


30  On the Cultural Revolution in relation to the Holocaust, see Vera Schwarcz, “The Burden of Memory: The Cultural Revolution and the Holocaust,” China Information (Leiden) 11, 1 (Summer 1996): 1-13. On the Holocaust  as a circumstance justifying mental illness, see Peter Kramer, “There’s Nothing Deep about Depression,” New York Times Magazine, 17 April 2005, 53.


31  My appreciation to Arthur Kleinman of Harvard University for broadening my understanding of schizophrenia. On brief reactive psychosis, see Sass, Madness and Modernism, 359-61. On schizophrenia, works consulted include E. Fuller Torey, Surviving Schizophrenia (New York: Harper Collins, 2001); Daniel C. Javitt and Joseph T. Coyle, “Decoding Schizophrenia,” Scientific American, January 2004, 48-55.


32 This description comes from the International Classification of Diseases, 9th rev., printed in American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed. (Washington,  DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1980), Appendix D, 417, quoted  in Sass, Madness and Modernism, 360.


33 Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” is collected in Selected Works of Lu Xun, trans. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (1960; repr., Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1978).


34  On Shi Lu’s resemblance to Hamlet, see Wang Zhaowen’s preface titled “Zai zai tansuo” [Yet again, explore], in Shi Lu zuopin xuanji [Selected works of Shi Lu], ed. Ping Ye (Beijing: People’s Art Press, 1983), 2-3. According to Shi Guo, Shi Lu reminded people of Don Quixote when he paced the courtyard of the Xi’an Art Academy holding a paddle and accompanied by his loyal sidekick, a small yellow dog. Shi, Shi Lu hua lun, 37.


35 Plato defined madness as occurring when the rational soul no longer serves as the “charioteer” of the self. Sass, Madness and Modernism, 1, 70-71.


36  Ad hoc Study Group of Ancient Literary Scholars and Marxist Theorists Organized by the Criticize  Reactionary Painter Shi Lu Task Force, “Pipan fandong huajia Shi Lu” [Criticize the reactionary painter Shi Lu] (Shaanxi Province Internal Party Document, 6 June 1974), 1-2. Mencius  lived roughly a century and a half after Confucius and is generally regarded as the second-most important philosopher in the Confucian tradition. See also Andrews, Painters and Politics,  296.


37  On the Xi’an black painting exhibition, see Ye Jian, “Yongxin xian’e de yichang naoju” [An intentionally evil drama], Meishu 5 (May  1978): 14-16, 35-36. Ye’s essay is also reproduced in Shui Tianzhong and Lang Shaojun, Ershi shijizhong zhongguo meishu wenxuan [Selections from twentieth-century Chinese art literature], vol. 2 (Shanghai: Shanghai Calligraphy  and Painting  Publishing, 1999), 260-68.  See also  Joan Lebold Cohen, The New Chinese Painting, 1949-1986 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 19-23, 120-24; Ellen Johnston Laing, The Winking Owl: Art in the People’s Republic of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 81-89; Jerome  Silbergeld and Gong Jisui, Contradictions:  Artistic  Life, the Socialist State, and  the Chinese Painter, Li Huasheng (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 41, 122, 129; and Eugene Yuejin Wang, “The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description,” Critical Inquiry 26, 3 (Spring 2000): 435-73.


38  In 1978, Shi Lu repainted an exact copy of the lost plum painting criticized during the black painting exhibition. For a reproduction  of this plum painting, see Miao  Fanzu, “Zuiren  dianfeng” [Drunken  man mountain  peak], Jiaodian, August 1996, 40. For a transcript of the painting’s inscription, see Ye, “Yongxin xian’e de yichang naoju,” 16. See also Chuang Shen, “Some Remarks concerning  Shi Lu’s Art of Painting,” in Collector’s Choice: The Genius of Shi Lu (Hong Kong: Cat Street Galleries, 1994), 53-54,

58. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Professor Maggie Bickford of Brown University  in interpreting  the iconography  of the plum’s  downward-pointing branches.


39  Chuang, “Some Remarks,” 54, 58 (emphasis  added).


40 Maggie Bickford, Ink Plum: The Making of a Chinese Scholar-Painting Genre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); see also Maggie Bickford, Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice: The Flowering Plum in Chinese Art (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1985).


41 The diary was the successor to an earlier one begun by Shi Lu when he was in the ox-shed jail at the Xi’an Art Academy; it was discovered and confiscated by political authorities. According to Shi Guo, the Qu Yuan poem discussed above was transcribed from memory by Shi Lu in both the earlier and later diaries. I have seen only the later diary. Information from the author’s 2004 interviews with Shi Guo.


42  For Shi Lu’s original sketch of the Old Fort (Purana Qila), see Meishu 4 (April 1956): 36.


43  The expression originates with a scornful scholar who had grown frustrated at the inferior verse inscribed by amateur poets on the tomb of the great Tang dynasty poet Li Po (701-62). Peter T. Morris, Chinese Sayings (Taipei: Longmen Shudian, 1981), 226-27.


44 See Shi Lu’s descriptions  of Confucius, and his discussion of similar aspects in himself, in Ye and Shi, Shi Lu yishu wenji, 211, 199-200. Shi Lu’s inscription on his drawing of Confucius speaks of the sage as strongly identified with the common people.


45  The two self-portraits appear in ibid., 261, 262.


46 Ibid., 209.


47  Lu Xun prefaced his essay with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche. His admiration (and that of Shi Lu) for rebel poets is influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of godlike men who defy convention to live passionately and dangerously. For a translation of Lu Xun’s “On the Power of Mara Poetry,” see Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, ed. Kirk A. Denton (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 96-109.


48  In this famous line concluding the essay, Lu Xun expressed a deep empathy with Qu Yuan as an emblem of the creative individual, “a warrior of the spirit.” On Lu Xun’s “antitraditional use of Qu Yuan,” see Laurence A. Schneider, A Madman of Ch’u: The Chinese Myth of Loyalty and Dissent (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 92.


49  Author’s translation from the painting’s inscription. This poem also appears in Shi Lu’s fable about Confucius and Qin Shihuang (discussed below), although the last line differs there. Ye and Shi, Shi Lu yishu wenji, 215-16. The published version does not include the pointed line about the Han emperor.


50  The fable appears in ibid., 197-216.


51  Translation from Li Yu-ning, The First Emperor of China: The Politics of Historiography (White Plains: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1975), 1.


52  Ye and Shi, Shi Lu yishu wenji, 204.


53 Miao, “Zuiren dianfeng,” 39.


54  Ye and Shi, Shi Lu yishu wenji, 214, 204, 199.


55  For example, on a painting  of a horizontally  growing plum (Figure 51 in Hawks, “‘Painting by Candlelight’”), Shi Lu inscribed, “From the frigid river and autumn moon grows self-clarity.” His calligraphy style juxtaposes two thick black characters (frigid river) with two wiry, thin, almost transparent characters (autumn moon).