Su Renshan, the rebel painter
Su Renshan (1814-c.1850) is one of the most original painters in the history of Chinese art. Born to a scholarly family in Shun Tak (順德 Shunde), a prosperous prefecture in the Pearl River Delta, Guangdong, Su Renshan’s life and work stand on defiance against the Confucian order. He lived through crucial times, when Guangzhou was the only port open to Western trade but the Opium War marked its end and also sent the country on a path of change.
I first came to know Su Renshan in the outstanding catalog Between Two Cultures: Late-Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2001), one of my favourite art books, edited by the eminent Princeton professor Wen Fong. The mention of Su Renshan was brief, though, and I would rediscover this artist just recently through the art historian Yeewan Koon, an Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong, perhaps the foremost specialist on Su Renshan. I attended Prof. Koon’s conference for the Royal Asiatic Society in Hong Kong last November and then I read her new book A Defiant Brush: Su Renshan and the Politics of Painting in Early 19th-Century Guangdong, a truly important book that I have enjoyed immensely.
Fascinated by this artist, his style in a way modern, speaking to us so frankly, and also a reflection – on the negative – on centuries of Chinese culture, I searched for more sources. In bookstore Tai Yip, I was lucky to find the beautiful catalogue of an exhibition held in the Chinese University of Hong Kong more than two decades ago, The Art of Su Liupeng & Su Renshan (1990), edited by the highly respected scholar Mayching Kao.
My connection to Su Renshan was somewhat personal too. Su Renshan came from Shun Tak (Shunde), like my father in law, Woo Ho. My father in law was so proud of his ancestral home that he would mention Shun Tak (Cantonese pronunciation) every single day of his life. I admired Woo Ho, from him I learned about the dramatic history of China in the twentieth century and about Chinese culture as a living heritage.
I wrote a review of Prof. Yeewan Koon’s talk for the Royal Asiatic Society and I also tried to write a review of her book. It is not an easy subject, but worth the effort. While writing on it, not finding still the key on how to share this subject with the readers, my father in law passed away, on 13th December 2014. Here is my obituary of Woo Ho that I posted in these pages.
My father in law’s death left me sad but his memory also gave me the inspiration to finish my review of Yeewan Koon’s book. I feel grateful to Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books, who accepted my manuscript. My review of A Defiant Brush: Su Renshan and the Politics of Painting in Early 19th-Century Guangdong has been published today in the Asian Review of Books. I am very pleased to share it with the readers of Beyond Thirty-Nine too. This is my tribute to Su Renshan and to my father in law, Woo Ho, in gratitude.