Eight Immortals

Eight Immortals
Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper
82 x 150 cm. (32 ¼ x 59 in.)
Inscribed and signed, with two seals of the artist
Dated wuwu year (1978)

Lan Cang Jiang-Mei Gong River Art Exhibition, Thailand-China Friendship Association, Thailand, 1995, pl. 16.
The Nan Guo Han Mo Passion: A Collection of Chinese Calligraphy And Painting By the Southeast Asian Collectors,
Mentor Publishing SDN BHD, Malaysia, August 2007, p. 168-169.

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Lot Essay

A painting has to come alive if it is dull and bland, the image lacks the vitality and charm of art. In order to achieve this, the spirit of the subject, whether landscape or figures, needs to be captured. One must have the idea of the painting before picking up the brush, instead of painting aimlessly without purpose.'
- Ding Yanyong, A World of Wonderful Paintings, p. 15


Ding Yanyong was born in 1902 into a rapidly changing China at a moment of the country's entry into the modern world. At the time, many art students, such as Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian, chose Europe as their destination. Japan, for its success in modernisation and geographical proximity, became another choice for Chinese students. In 1920, Ding arrived in Japan to study at the renowned Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

During Ding's time in Japan he was greatly exposed to the Modernist movement due to the mentors from differing studios – Fujishima Takeji (1867 – 1943) was his first teacher at the Kawabata Painting School, who oversaw the Western painting department there as well as acted as professor in the Western Painting Department of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, which Ding later enrolled in September 1921 (Fig. 1).

Ding's own autobiography spoke of being "motivated by youthful fantasy and ambition and recklessly escaped to Tokyo to study painting" - his training in Japan enabled him to gain a working knowledge of the realist technique, and at the same time exposed him to the latest artistic development in Europe, of which the art of Matisse, Gauguin and Cézanne influenced him most profoundly. There, Ding experimented on different forms and techniques, one being Fauvism. The fauves ("wild beasts"), led by Henri Matisse, sought a more dynamic way of depicting nature, experimenting with bold, non-naturalistic colour and applying them in short, energetic strokes.

Most of his teachers at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts received training in Europe, and were heavily influenced by Impressionism. Ding chose to follow Wada Eisaku (1874 – 1959), a follower of Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924), who was central to Ding's discipline towards art creation and the use of colour in oil painting. In June 1924, the periodical Chuo Bijutsu (Central Art) held an exhibition to promote modernist movements – of the 2,500 entries, Ding's On the Dining Table was selected for the inclusion in the Fifth Central Exhibition in 1924. Interestingly, the judge for the exhibition included modernist artist Ryuzaburo Umehara (1888-1986), whose lot is part of the Pioneers, Lot 2510.

Sadly, the majority of his work during this time was lost save for his self portrait (Fig. 2), preserved by the University, where Ding's admiration towards Matisse, together with his instinct for the use of and ability to contrast bright colours, is evident.


The study in Japan laid the foundation for Ding's future career in art, having devoted five years towards the study of Western painting (Fig. 3). Matisse's fauve style had a profound effect on Ding's style, and upon returning to China in 1925, Ding became a teacher at the Shanghai College of Fine arts. During his tenure, he was mainly charged with the responsibility of teaching advanced oil paintings course, emphasising creative expression. On the one hand he felt compelled to teach students the accuracy in representation, yet at the same time detested their excessive faithfulness to reality, consequently lacking in artistic merit.

In the 20th century, one of the most important preoccupations for the Chinese art world was ways to negotiate the relationship between European and Chinese art. Unlike many first generation western style artists who switched from traditional painting to Western style painting, Ding Yanyong began his artistic career in the Western Medium (Fig. 4)- it was only upon his return to china that he began to become increasingly interested in ink art.

Around 1929, Ding discovered the unorthodox masters in the literati tradition, including Xu Wei (1521 – 1593), Bada Shanren (1626 – 1705) and Jin Nong (1687 – 1763) (Fig. 5). Ding admired the depth and breadth of the artistic expressiveness of traditional paintings and calligraphy, concurrently developing an interest in cultural relics such as archaic bronzes, rubbings and seals. He began to study, collect, and paint Chinese ink paintings, marking the beginning of Ding's explorations to assimilate and synthesize Chinese and Western art for creative expression. This decision did not come without controversy – many modernist artists at the time criticized him for "going backwards" to a stagnant form of artistic expression, and felt they had lost a great star in the modernist field.

In fact, Ding's return to his native tradition for inspiration was different to others as he had never received any formal training in traditional Chinese painting. Instead, he was looking to traditional works with the eyes of a fauvist, and hoped to revive Chinese art to "a return to the primitive state", which he felt could uncover deeper layers of meaning. Ding soon saw an uncanny similarity between the idiosyncratic expressiveness and spontaneity of Bada Shanren's flowing lines and the art of Matisse that he admired. With this as a point of departure, Ding started to create works in his own style which he finessed in the 1960s. His later paintings broke free from the formal restraint and continued to develop his ink art full of the contemporary spirit.

Through Matisse's influence, Ding's works and teachings exemplified simplicity and naivety through the reduction of the natural forms, without diminishing its rich content (Fig. 6). Ding sought to achieve a "returning to the innocence of a child and achieving a personal style capable of conveying rich meaning through simple forms" (Fig. 7), and believed that these ideals could be fulfilled through Chinese art. Sadly the majority of his works were lost between this important period, prior to his move to Hong Kong in 1949.


Ding Yanyong's arrival in Hong Kong on 13 October 1949 was fraught with financial difficulty, loneliness and personal tragedy. Some scholars inferred that paintings of that period was "manifestations of his loneliness and solitude".

Ding developed a greater sympathy towards Bada Shanren's works and the cold and lonely mood it evoked owing to Bada Shanren's personal journey. Ding saw Bada Shanren as one who "destroyed old art forms of China with great determination, and created new forms more suitable for his own time". Additionally, Ding followed the expressive and spontaneous xieyi style of Xu Wei, Shitao and Jin Nong. He allowed the development of his ink paintings to mature over time, assimilating his exposure to Western art, personal journey and influence of old traditional Chinese artists to achieve a harmonious integration of all these elements. During the modernisation of art in China in the 20th century, artists approached the dichotomies of the Chinese and the West, the traditional and the contemporary differently: while Xu Beihong forged ways to inject a sense of realism into traditional Chinese painting, Lin Fengmian sought an expression using ink and colour. On the other hand, Ding Yanyong's innovation of ink lies in his inimitable understanding of different aesthetics as well as their spirits.

Slowly, Ding developed his signature style of ink paintings that was exuberant and free, idiosyncratic and pure. His figure paintings are imbued with these elements, from his one-stroke paintings (Fig. 8) to historical figures which have been given a twist with his eccentric humour (Fig. 9). Many of his figures, while adhereing to traditional subject matters, do not follow traditional prototypes, instead follow his creative imagination and often done in a highly exaggerated style with a strong Chinese flavour, similar to this present lot. The expressive lines and the bold colours in this work evoke the Fauvist paintings of Matisse, while the use of ink and colour recalls the brushwork of Bada Sharen. Highly experimental in nature, Ding's whimsical depiction of the figures display a distinctive humour and wit (Fig. 10).


The Eight Immortals, worshipped as gods of longevity, are fabled Taoist Gods from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 240) and are most commonly presented as a group crossing the sea on a wooden or bamboo boat after attending the peach banquet of the Queen Mother of the West, or battling with a young dragon in the sea. Each Immortal is identifiable by their attributes:

ZHONGLI QUAN - leader of the Eight Immortals who obtained the secrets of the elixir of life, is often shown as an over-weight man with an exposed belly, with a peach and his main emblem, a fan, which is believed to revive the souls of the dead;

ZHANG GUOLAO - a recluse with magical powers and the ability to make himself invisible, is often accompanied by a white mule which he rides backwards during his travels, and often carries a Chinese musical instrument called the yugu;

LU DONGBIN - a scholar recluse who was taught the way of Taoism by Zhongli Quan and gained immortality at the age of 50, is commonly shown holding a Taoist fly-brush and a sword on his back;

CAO GUOJIU - believed to be the son of military commander Cao Bin, and wears a court head-dress and official robes while holding a pair of castanets, making him the patron saint of the theatre arts;

LI TIEGUAI - usually depicted as a beggar with an iron staff and a pilgrim's gourd, because his disciple, believing his master to be dead while his spirit was visiting the celestial regions, burned Li's body and after Li's return he had to enter the body of a nearby beggar;

HAN XIANGZI - the nephew of scholar Han Yu, is said to possess the power to make flowers grow and blossom on command, and his emblem is the flute, as he is the benefactor of musicians;

LAN CAIHE - usually described as a man dressed in a blue gown, who waves a wand while begging through the streets chanting verses, and holds a flower-basket emblem which makes him the patron saint of florists;

HE XIANGU - the daughter of shopkeeper Lingling, is said to have gained immortality by eating the supernatural peach and lives on powered mother-of-pearl and moonbeams, and holds a stalk of lotus as her emblem.

This well-loved and traditional subject matter has been the source of inspiration for artists experimenting in a variety of medium, from paintings, ceramics, cloisonné work to ivory. Ding injected a fresh and energetic air to this age old subject matter, using free-flowing lines to sketch out the figures, deftly executed at a fast pace, with confident strokes and dots to endow the figures with a sense of child-like playfulness.

A significant, representative work from Ding's later period, Eight Immortals reflects the artist's keen interest in folklore and traditional operas with a fresh visual language of freedom executed in the age-old medium of ink. With vivid colours and expressively animated figures, Eight Immortals is a superb testimony to what makes Ding Yanyong a true pioneer in the art history of 20th century China.

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