Could Bada Shanren (八大山人) be the first caricaturist in China?

Edward Tsang 2015.01.19; updated 2015.02.02

Bada Shanren (八大山人) might have been the first caricaturist in China. In his paintings, many animals stared upwards, as if they don't think much of things above them.

Bada Shanren (1626-1705)

Bada Shanren was a distant branch in the Ming monarch in China. After the Manchurian defeated the Ming dynasty (around 1644), Bada Shanren hid himself in a Buddhist monastery in Nanchang (南昌). He appeared to have gone mad, screaming from time to time. He could have play-acted to reassure the emperors in the Qing dynasty that he was not a threat to them. Only he himself knew what the truth was. He left the monastery after 40 years, when the Qing dynasty was in secure control of China.

Riddle in Bada Shanren's signature

Written top to bottom, the four characters of his name (八大山人) form Bada Shanren's signature in his later life. This signature looks like the character "laugh" (笑) as well as the character "cry" (哭). Only Bada Shanren knows whether that was deliberate, and if so, what messages, if any, he wanted to convey.

Caricatures by Bada Shanren

Bada Shanren was a well-known painter. In many of his paintings, animals (especially the weaker ones) stared upwards. This gesture was exaggerated and unmistakable. It is possible that the painter did not think much of the authority, but did not want to speak it out. (Many were killed for speech crime (文字獄) at the time.) So he expressed his disapproval of the authority in his paintings.

Early caricaturists worldwide

As Bada Shanren was (apparently) using exaggerated characters to deliver his message, his paintings were caricatures. Some of the earliest caricaturists that I can find in the List of caricaturists in Wikipedia were Jacques Callot (1592-1635), Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674-1755) and William Hogarth (1697–1764).



Professor Weihua YE (Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics (JUFE)) explained Bada Shanren's work to the author in Nanchang in 2014. He also provided some of the links above.