AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Kewen Li

Childhood According to Feng Zikai

Childhood has been a significant theme in Feng Zikai’s arts. Feng spent a lot of time painting children; some of the famous works related to children include A Collection of Cartoons of ChildrenSketches of Children, and Cartoons on the Little Ones (Hung, 1990). There are also many literary works that convey Feng’s affection for childhood, such as “To My Children,” “What Children Reveal,” and “The Diary of Huazhan” (Laureillard, 2014). It is easy to see that Feng did not hesitate to present his affection for children in his works. According to Feng’s early writings and paintings, childhood is regarded as the precious “golden age” of human life: it is the period when a human’s world is free, uncomplicated, and full of imagination and creativity, whereas an adult’s world is full of limits and regulations. “When Father is Away” (Fig 1) by Feng could sufficiently exemplify such a perspective (Hung, 1990). In the painting, a child held a brush to show his artistic talent on his father’s desk. We could notice that the child’s act is not an imitation of an adult but a purely exploratory behavior developed by his or her curiosity and creativity. If it were an imitation of an adult’s behavior in this painting, the child would have drawn or written on a piece of paper because it is common knowledge in the adult world.

I would like to explore the childhood in Feng’s works for my exhibition. In particular, I wish to introduce and analyze how Feng developed his perspective on childhood and portrayed children in his artworks, especially in terms of his early works, works during wartime, and works regarding the Buddhist philosophy.

Figure 1: “When Father is Away”


Hung, Chang-Tai. “War and Peace in Feng Zikai’s Wartime Cartoons.” Modern China 16, no. 1 (1990): 39–83.

Laureillard, Marie. “Regret of spring: The child according to Feng Zikai.” Oriens Extremus 53 (2014): 47-60.

Feng Zikai’s Looking at a Potted Plant

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.


Feng Zikai

Regarding Chinese cartoons, Feng Zikai (1898-1975) is one of the representatives whose art works involve a variety of topics, and he was also well-known writer, calligrapher, scholar, musician, and translator. Feng was a native of Tongxiang in Zhejiang Province (the South China), who was born during a turbulent period. During the first half of Feng’s life, he has experienced the major reform of Chinese society and various significant conflicts and wars, such as Sino-Japanese War and civil wars. Since the experience of studying abroad in Japan in the spring of 1921, Feng has received great influence from the Westernization and Japanese arts. Also, Feng’s works have strong concerns of Buddhist belief, humanitarianism, and individualism. After the publication of his Zi Kai Man Hua (the collection of Feng’s cartoons) in 1924, Feng was regarded as the father of contemporary Chinese cartoons. Hu Sheng Hua Ji (Paintings for the Preservation of Life) was created between 1927 and 1973, which is one of his most famous art works that involves profound Buddhism inspiration.


Lin, Su-Hsing. “Feng Zikai’s Art and the Kaiming Book Company: Art for the People in Early Twentieth Century China”. The Ohio State University / OhioLINK, 2003.

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