The painting above, Feng Zikai’s Looking at a Potted Plant; Thinking of Something Else (1949), comes from one of the most well-known collections of Feng’s paintings, the third volume of Protecting Life Painting Collection (Hu Sheng Hua Ji) published in 1949. In this painting, there is a bound and twisted potted tree next to a painting of a person treated in the same way. The Chinese characters on the top left of this painting mean the theme, “an idea inspired by the potted plant.” The whole painting is simplistic, with a few brushstrokes’ straightforward delineations of the objects. Such a painting style is called Man Hua, the Chinese cartoon.

With the inspiration of Buddhism, Looking at a Potted Plant is one of the representatives that convey Feng’s thoughts related to Buddhism and the protection of the living creatures. The painting collection included the painting above, Hu Sheng Hua Ji, which features Feng’s cartoons of animals and plants in imminent threat. In the collection, Feng intended to use humor to enlighten his readers to protect and respect all their lives and beings. Therefore, in Hu Sheng Hua Ji, Feng usually criticizes the particular ways that human beings treat other forms of life. To do that, Feng would like to present such treatments alongside the treatment of human beings in the same manner, which enables his readers to think about the cruelty involved in those treatments (Yan, 2019: 547). Looking at a Potted Plant exemplifies such a technique: next to the artificially tied and bound potted plant is the portrait of a person who has been treated in the same way. The logic behind this contrast is that If it is morally wrong for people to intentionally bind the limbs of others, it is also morally wrong to do the same to plants, and vice versa.

The interpretation of Looking at a Potted Plant is not limited to protecting life but also the protection of culture and arts. According to Feng himself, bending the plants to force them to grow in a particular way is unnatural and undesirable because it would cripple them. Moreover, Feng suggests that artificially shaping and prettifying plants cannot show the beauty of their natural growth (Hawks, 2017: 34). Unfortunately, the majority of the “gardeners” cannot be aware of that, and they trim the plants into an exactly uniform size and style. Thus, Looking at a Potted Plant also symbolizes Feng’s criticism of the ideologies that confine the development of art forms and aesthetics: it is meaningless to produce uniform arts.



Hawks, Shelley Drake. The Art of Resistance : Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.

Yan, Hektor K.T. “‘A Rich Conception of the Surface’: On Feng Zikai’s Paintings to Protect Life.” Philosophy east & west 69, no. 2 (2019): 535–558.