The problem with being a great historical city or a great historical figure in China is the same problem with being a great Chinese student. Even if you’re one in a million, there are 1330 just like you. Great Chinese basketball players, that’s another story. They’re analogous to Shanghai and Beijing, or Chairman Mao and Kublai Khan, towering over the average foreigner’s conception of China.
So Nanchang waits for the far and few who find value beyond superlatives: tallest, richest, most modern. In terms of regional clout, Nanchang is stuck between Wuhan and Fuzhou. It’s on a big river, next to a big lake (the Gan and Poyang, unlike a thousand other Chinese cities on big rivers near big lakes). There’s a beautiful Tang Dynasty pavilion here, Tengwang, as though that were a draw for any but the hardcore historian. And Zhou Enlai led his nascent PLA to its first victory in Nanchang, on still-celebrated August 1st, although staff at the Nanchang Uprising Museum have plenty of time for tea and cigarette breaks.
While we won’t breathlessly advise you to make a beeline for Nanchang as soon as you find time, we will presume to edify you with the story and works of Nanchang’s 1 of 1330, Zhu Da. Nobleman, poet, painter, monk, lunatic, farmer, Zhu Da played more roles than a schizophrenic Peking Opera star. The fact that you’ve never heard of him proves that China is a bottomless hot pot of cultural treasures; just when you think you’ve consumed all but the tofu skin and jujubes, a succulent shrimp ball stirs to the surface.
Under ordinary circumstances, life as a scion of Ming royalty is good. For a few halcyon years, Zhu Da led the life of a pampered princeling, a talented one, too, turning out creditable poems from age eight. His genius with a paintbrush became evident at age eleven. The conquering Manchus, however, were less interested in critiquing versethan in trampling every remnant of Ming authority. In 1644, the Qing officially made their usurpation dynastic, and a nineteen year old Zhu Da fled with his family to the hills outside Nanchang.
Going from riches to rags is almost as stressful as going from rags to riches, and Zhu Da’s formerly aristocratic family was ill-prepared to handle the indigent refugee lifestyle. Soon his father, young wife and infant son all succumbed to their reversal in fortune. Devastated, Zhu Da retreated into monkhood, a devotee of Zen Buddhism, and adopted his first and lesser known sobriquet, Chuanqi. Possessed of uncommon energy, the rigors of monastic life did not prevent him from developing a masterful body of poetry and paintings, as well as maturing spiritually into an abbot. His earliest extant folio of fifteen paintings from this stage of his life is on display in Taipei’s National Museum.
Perhaps the artistic side of his soul kept Zhu Da open-minded enough to also absorb himself in the tenets of Daoism. And despite the austerity demanded of his faith, admiration for his work soon garnered him a place in Magistrate Hu Yitang’s coterie, who reveled in poetry parties. The undisputed star of these high-level salon/soirees, Zhu Da began to grow less secular in his ambitions, and began plumping for an official’s post. He was unceremoniously rejected on the basis of his royal Ming lineage.
It may have been the unrelieved specter of Qing oppression, or perhaps the unbearable sensitivity of artistic souls from Van Gogh to Michael Jackson, that led to Zhu Da’s subsequent dementia. Famously lapsing into a manic month-long jag of hysterical laughing and sobbing, he set fire to his robe and took to the road, an itinerant painter. For the next three years he answered only to ‘Lu’, the word for ‘donkey’ but also a derogatory term for all monks. After that, his hand turned to farming when it wasn’t painting, and he took his final and most widely recognized name, ‘Bada Shanren’, ‘Mountain Man of the Eight Greats'(Great what is still a subject of conjecture).
It may be hard for the layman to see the passion and turbulence that characterized Zhu Da’s life in his work. Certainly the simplicity of Zen and the nature-reverence of Dao are evident in his minimalist approach. There is more than a hint of mad genius in the way fish swim through empty space, or birds overshadow mountains, forcing the observer to conjure the sea or a cloud-borne perspective. Most interesting to the historically inclined is the prevalence of metaphor as the theme of his paintings. In ‘Two peacocks’, one of his most metaphorically obvious, two grotesque peacocks allude to the Qing Dynasty and the plumes that betoken imperial Manchu status. The barest hint of a rock below them suggests the lack of a foundation for the dynastic fowl, and their eventual fall from power.
While his political sentiments may have paled in appeal over time, the power of his elemental compositions, and the surgically precise brushstrokes that formed them, influence painters of the classical school to this day. The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou were among his earliest disciples, while legends such as Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, andWu Changshuo bloomed under the light of his example. Yet to the teeming masses, Zhu Da floats in semi-obscurity, as does his hometown Nanchang.