Ghosts & Demons

Posted on November 11, 2019

When most Americans think of Chinese art, they are likely to think of ancient dynasties, age-old ceramics, and ink wash paintings depicting landscapes, flowers, and birds. Chinese art represents one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in human history, and it is also an art form of remarkable continuity, especially in comparison to the Western tradition involving cultural collapse and gradual rebirth, or renaissance. What many might not be aware of is the work now being produced by young Chinese artists, both in China and around the world.

One such artist is Hanjialin Bao, a remarkable illustrator whose works are currently on display and available for purchase at the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum through January 26. Bao’s exhibit is called Between Black and White, and many of the works are based on characters from Liaozhai Zhiyi, a collection of ancient supernatural tales first compiled by Pu Songling in the 1700s.

“I look to combine traditional and modern cultural elements, applying traditional Chinese techniques to the contemporary world,” says Bao, who uses vibrant colors to create new versions of the stories’ well-known ghouls and ghosts. “I am passionate about these ancient legends,” she adds. She credits the original written stories as well as TV and film adaptations as her inspirations, including the melodramatic characters seen in the early movies from Hong Kong.

Still, while her colorful figures stand in marked contrast to the pale inks and watercolors of the past, the bold colors are in fact drawn from other Chinese art forms including facial masks from the Peking opera, Chinese New Year paintings, and Chinese kites. Though unknown to Bao, some might see a kinship with the psychedelic figures from the animated film Yellow Submarine.

Bao now lives in Long Beach, and while unaware of Yellow Submarine, even before moving to the United States she was familiar with Western styles. In addition to the Chinese Internet sensation Zao Dao, a 25-year-old artist who lives in an isolated village in Southern China, Bao counts the British artist and illustrator Jamie Hewlett among her influences.

And, while there are differences between Chinese and Western art, there are great similarities as well. Although the stories of Liaozhai Zhiyi feature ghosts and demons, the real focus is the everyday life of the common people. The supernatural and unexplainable are used to depict corruption and injustice, especially as they affect the poor. They are themes easily recognizable in the West and around the world, which helps to explain the power and appeal of Bao’s figures.   Wenting Jia


Header Image: Li Zhongzhi, a character who visits Hell in the story Yan Luo (The Ruler of the Underworld).
2nd Image: An image of the dead inspired by the story Ye Gou (The Wild Dog).