Chinese Calligraphy Artworks and Masters – Zhu Da (朱耷/Chu Ta) also Known as the Royal Monk

A Brief Biography of Zhu Da (朱耷/Chu Ta)

Zhu Da (1626-1705), often known as Ba Da Shan Ren (八大山人/Pa Ta Shan Jen), had a most remarkable, yet somewhat melancholy life. As a descendent Ming royalty, his life was threatened from an early age as the Manchu invasions and the installation of their Qing Dynasty made retaining any kinship to the defunct Ming Dynasty a dangerous proposition. Indeed, in the early years of Qing rule, those who might even potentially contest the right of Manchu rule were actively sought out or assassination. It was for this reason, to escape persecution, that Zhu Da cast off his filial lineage to join a monastic Buddhist order. Moreover, anecdotes regarding his behavior show that he was incredibly eccentric in his conduct and bearing. It is said that for very long periods he would say nothing, only laughing, smiling and nodding when he needed to communicate. Whether this was evidence of his extreme mental duress or simply a mask of madness to avert the eyes of the authorities is difficult to determine: neither is likely to be the entire truth.

In his later years, Zhu Da was able to safely leave the monastery and re-enter society at large. Following an abortive attempt to gain an official post, he was content to work as a professional painter and calligraphist. Although he did not openly challenge the Qing dynasty, his works all bear witness to the great sense of loss he felt at not only the destruction of the Ming, but the effective eradication of his family.

The Calligraphy of Zhu Da (朱耷/Chu Ta)

Zhu Da’s calligraphic style is directly expressive of the turbulent emotions within the artist. Most of his works that remain are executed in a Cursive Style that exposes the immediacy of his thoughts and expressions. For all its simplifications, his Cursive is largely without artifice: it is clear that he has truly mastered an ability to write directly from the heart. This unmediated frankness lies in stark contrast with his social persona. It has been often remarked that it was only in his artistic works that Zhu Da was able to express his true feelings of loss, hardship and confusion. Even his pen name, Ba Da Shan Ren, conceals a possible allusion to his innermost feelings. When written in the traditional way, and especially if done in cursive, the characters Ba and Da together may appear similar to both the characters for ‘to laugh’ (笑/Xiao/Hsiao) and ‘to cry’ (哭/Ku/K’u). Thus, the conflicting emotions of the artist are expressed, but only in the most roundabout way.