Qing dynasty scholar-painters inherited the legacy of the most forceful personality in late Ming painting and calligraphy, the official Dong Qichang (1555—1636). Dong was a collector, painter, calligrapher and magisterial connoisseur. He formulated a theory of painting history that scholars esteemed or despised but could not ignore: it placed the educated élite in a lineage of inspired landscape painters but denigrated the polished, descriptive paintings of professionals. The copying of earlier masterworks was the normal way to learn painting. Dong Qichang departed from the norm by promoting copying as a creative act not limited to exact imitation. His own painting and calligraphy provided examples of innovative linear and formal abstraction. Those painters who followed Dong Qichang’s lead came to be called ‘orthodox’, with the connotations of correct and authentic. Within a century, a style that had been conceived as an amateur mode for the educated élite was co-opted by the court as one of several acceptable painting styles and became commercially popular as well.
If orthodox painters occasionally slipped social critiques into their paintings, they did so with the Confucian decorum of ‘indirect criticism’ (feng) that avoided overt offence. ‘Individualist’ and ‘eccentric’ painters, by contrast, edged towards ironic, even irreverent expression. In the seventeenth century several Buddhist monks emerged as masterful and inventive painters. Among them, Kuncan was unique in having been deeply spiritual from childhood; he entered a monastery in the early 1630s, twelve years before the fall of the Ming. The other three became Buddhist monks as refugees from the chaos following the conquest. Zhu Da (Buddhist name Bada Shanren, 1626—1705) and Zhu Ruoji (Buddhist name Yuanji, style name Shitao, 1642—1707) were members of the large clan of the Ming imperial family and as such were in grave danger following the conquest. Entering Buddhist monasteries removed them from the ferment of Manchu resistance and the possibility of their being used in a Ming restoration. Their paintings display uninhibited brushwork, quantities of ink, quirky, dynamic compositions and recondite content.