China’s grass and insect art

By REN GUANHONG / 03-03-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Artwork of a cicada (above) by Qi Baishi (1864–1957), and artwork of a butterfly (below) by the Qing Dynasty artist Ju Lian Photo: FILE

The ancient Chinese divided the Sun’s annual circular motion into 24 segments. Each segment is called a solar term, and reflects changes in the seasons, climate, and phenology. In ancient times, farmers relied on the 24 solar terms to decide on the best seasonal approach to agricultural activities. 
Jingzhe, or the Awakening of Insects, is the 3rd of the 24 solar terms, signaling a key time for spring agricultural activities. The Chinese term jing usually means “to startle” and zhe refers to hibernating creatures, particularly insects. Therefore, the term jingzhe alludes to the ancient belief that insects sleeping in winter were awakened by spring thunderstorms. However, modern science shows that they are not awakened by thunder, but rather, warmer weather. In 2021, the Awakening of Insects falls on Mar. 5 and ends on Mar. 19. Since a solar term associated with insects is coming, it’s time to talk about the unique charm of these little creatures. 
Art of grass and insects 
Insects exist almost everywhere, but they are usually ignored or even condemned to death by fly swatters. These small creatures seem to have little to do with aesthetics. However, the Chinese have developed a specific art form starring insects: the art of caochong (grass and insect). 
The term caochong generally refers to insects in grasses. Chinese literati have paid attention to these little creatures for thousands of years. A poem from the Shijing, or the Classic of Poetry, expresses how a wife misses her husband through the sounds of insects: “Yao-yao went the grass-insects,/ And the hoppers sprang about./ While I do not see my lord,/ My sorrowful heart is agitated./ Let me have seen him,/ Let me have met him,/ And my heart will then be stilled” (trans. James Legge).
History of grass-and-insect art 
The insects depicted in Chinese paintings, particularly within the genre of grass-and-insect painting, invite people to the insect world in all its intriguing detail and wondrous color. 
Grass-and-insect painting is a small but beautiful category of Chinese painting. There are three main subjects of traditional Chinese painting: figures, landscapes, flowers and birds. The grass-and-insect genre is affiliated to flower-and-bird paintings. This genre dates back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (c. 1600–256 BCE). Bronzeware with cicada patterns from this period have been identified as the earliest grass-and-insect art in China. During the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE), insects became a popular design for clothes and murals. During the Han era, cicada-shaped jade headwear in particular symbolized a high social status. 
Insects continued appearing in Chinese paintings through the Wei and Jin Period (220–420). The Eastern-Jin scholar Guo Pu (276–324) wrote commentaries for the early Chinese lexicon Erya. The illustrations of Guo’s commentaries cover over 590 species of animals and plants, of which images of insects provide evidence that these little creatures had become the independent subjects of paintings. 
During the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period (420–589), the rapid development of flower-and-bird paintings promoted the growth of grass-and-insect paintings. The Southern-Dynasty painter, Gu Jingxiu (420–464), painted sparrows and cicadas on hand fans, setting a precedent for the sparrows and cicadas as a classic combination of figures in Chinese paintings. According to historical documents, painters who excelled at depicting insects during the Tang era (618–907) famously included Yan Xuanjing and Li Yuanying (630–684). The former was adept at painting flies, butterflies, bees, and cicadas, while the latter specialized in bees and butterflies. Li’s achievements in painting butterflies have been highly praised by Chinese poets from later dynasties. 
Artists brought grass-and-insect paintings to maturity during the Five Dynasties period (907–960). Xu Xi and Huang Quan (c. 903–965) were the most outstanding artists of flower-and-bird paintings from this era. “Birds, Insects, and Turtles Sketched from Life,” one of Huang Quan’s extant artworks, depicts ten birds, two turtles, and twelve insects. The detail of the insects, such as the cicada’s transparent wings and the longhorn beetle’s springy antenna, were vividly portrayed. Huang Quan was known for his technique, applying light colors with delicate skill, hiding the intentionally pale underdrawings, and seeming to dispense with the usually dominant element of a strong brush outline. Different from Huang’s naturalistic style, Xu Xi drew insects in ink in a bold, free manner, adding a little color afterward. Both men laid foundation for the great achievements of Song-Dynasty flower-and-bird paintings. 
The Song Dynasty (960–1279) was a culturally rich and sophisticated age for China. It saw many grass-and-insect painters and great advancements in grass-and-insect art. The most representative grass-and-insect painters of this era were Xu Chongsi, Yi Yuanji, Cui Bai, Zhao Chang, and Lin Chun. Xu Chongsi was Xu Xi’s grandson. He applied the mogu technique, or “boneless” painting technique (“boneless” indicates forms made by ink and color washes rather than outlined), in painting flowers, thus establishing a genre known as mogu hua, or “boneless flowers.” Lin Chun’s “Grapes and Insects” depicts several insects with delicate lines and elegant colors, including a dragonfly, a mantis, and a stink bug. 
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), under the rule of the Mongols, scholars’ access at court was restricted and many intellectuals chose to withdraw into seclusion rather than serve the Mongols. A heightened sense of individual purpose emerged, which in turn inspired their art. These artists used expressive calligraphic brushwork to reflect their own personalities and moods rather than technical refinement, signifying a new trend in flower-and-bird painting: freehand brushwork. This trend also influenced grass-and-insect art. In the painting “Early Autumn,” Qian Xuan (1239–1299) expressed the inner vitality and spirit of these creatures through various shades of ink, with a sparing application of outlines. 
During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), artist Yun Shouping (1633–1690) inherited Xu Chongsi’s “boneless” manner that emphasized ink washes instead of lines. He revived the genre of flower-and-bird painting by combining ink wash techniques and careful realist techniques, thereby displaying a strong contrast between light and darkness in his paintings. 
Ju Lian (1828–1904) and his elder brother Ju Chao were known for their bird-and-flower paintings. They further developed Yun Shouping’s style. Ju Lian had a love for natural beauty and this shows in his intricate nature paintings. It is said that he often observed insects at night in his garden. Ju Lian’s most representative grass-and-insect artwork was an album of flower-and-insect paintings, characterized by realistic images, high contrast color and a wide range of subjects. 
The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting is a printed manual of Chinese painting compiled during the Qing era. It is a classic textbook of traditional Chinese paintings. It summarizes the theories and techniques of grass-and-insect paintings, and sets the principles of this genre, greatly promoting the dissemination and popularity of grass-and-insect art. 
Qi Baishi's grass-and-insect paintings 
Qi Baishi (1864–1957) was one of the most influential painters in modern China. He is credited with drawing insects in an extremely meticulous fine-line style with flowers and vegetables executed in a colorful, freely sketched manner. His painting subjects were not limited to the common insects—butterflies, bees, cicadas, dragonflies—of traditional Chinese paintings. 
Throughout his life, Qi drew inspiration from objects of everyday existence. All insects which are common in daily life, even mosquitos and flies, appear in his paintings with a playful tone. 
Qi initially made insects the absolute leading figures in his paintings by ingeniously leaving large areas blank, a traditional Chinese painting technique known as liu bai, which creates a sense of distance and vagueness. Since his inventive works, plants are no longer a necessary element of grass-and-insect paintings. It’s easy to sense Qi’s love of nature and life through his fresh and lively works.