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Lui Shou-kwan Zen

Ink painting on paper of a vertical shape of black, grey, and red brushstrokes bursting forward from a background of white, grey, and light blue. A beam of light seems to emanate from the top of the shape.

M+, Hong Kong, © Helen Ting. Photo: M+, Hong Kong


Lui Shou-kwan is a significant figure in the art history of Hong Kong, and, more widely, Asia.

He founded the Hong Kong New Ink Movement, and studied both Chinese and western theories of painting, and took great interest in philosophical thinking. As a result, he developed a unique style of large-scale ink painting; and his ‘Zen paintings’ are perhaps the most impressive.

Koon Wai Bong, artist and professor of ink painting at The Baptist University of Hong Kong, told us that this Zen painting from 1970 is one of the most unique of all Lui Shou-kwan’s pieces.


Generally speaking, Lui Shou Kwan’s Zen painting features bold and expressive brushwork. The raven darkness of ink often plainly strikes the painting surface while a stunning red dot or two appears against the white background of the paper—this is his typical style. However, this painting shows none of these characteristics. It seems that Lui Shou-kwan aimed to diverse his typical style of Zen painting and develop something new.

Compositionally, this painting is balanced and symmetric, and yet the uniqueness of the xuan paper enhances the expressiveness of brushstrokes and multiplies the layering of ink, which charges the painting with a beautiful visual exuberance. The tonal variation of ink looks so narrow that you may consider it unskilful; however, it is absolutely not just a large patch of dark ink. Indeed, Lui made a great deal of effort to intensify the subtlety of the inky nuances.

The ink, here, is not just monochrome, but the blackness is finely retouched with a hint of pale yellow and few glimmering stains of red. These are the new elements for Lui to embody his understanding and expression of ink. Furthermore, the darkness of ink dominating the whole work seems to imply the moment that the heaven and earth have just been made from chaos, or the dawn of a day is approaching but has not yet come.


Aside from the striking visuals, Koon Wai Bong thinks the meaning behind Zen is also crucial to understanding this painting.


‘Zen’ could be understood in two ways: ‘idealism’ and ‘no method as the method’. What is ‘idealism’? In short, it means that reality can not be separated from human perception or ‘ideas’. To me, it would be rephrased that the outer world doesn’t matter, and yet the essence of understanding the world is to perceive the objective reality by one’s heart or mind. Another idea of Zen is to take ‘no method as the method’. ‘No method’, here, doesn’t mean that there is ‘no way’ to achieve what you want to achieve, or the ‘Dao’ in Daoist saying. However, it means that no one can achieve it by sticking to the old rules or methods.

This work is an abstract painting, in which no natural form could be found. As you can see, there is no mountain, no stream, no tree, no rock, no sky, no water, no lake nor even no lotus. Besides, there are also no old rules or methods, and Lui Shou-kwan intended to break a new ground in an attempt to modernise guohua or Chinese painting for the development of his new ink painting, and seek a new way to express nothing but his inner self.


This work titled Zen is an ink and colour painting on paper created by Lui Shou-kwan in 1970. It’s a large vertical rectangle, measuring 284 centimetres high and 122 centimetres wide.

Zen is an abstract painting with no recognisable objects or figures. A form resembling a black cloud dominates around 80 percent of the space at the centre. The cloud is not clearly defined and resembles thick smoke with irregular edges. Other colours can be seen through the black ink or around the edges at its top and bottom. Red is peeking through the centre of the black cloud in many spots, as if there’s a fire burning behind the cloud. A tiny strip of yellow sits near the bottom of the cloud. Above and behind the black cloud is a splotchy area of greyish white and pale blue. The very bottom of the painting, below the black cloud, is a clean white area showing no paint, only the paper. The most clearly defined element in the painting is at the upper left corner. What looks like a shaft of white light appears to be either entering the black cloud at an angle, or possibly shooting up out of it.

In the bottom section of the painting there are five seals which are small red squares. Near the left edge two seals represent the artist’s name and his family name. Below those two is another seal that contains a three-word Chinese quote from the Doctrine of the Mean of Confucian philosophy, which approximately means ‘intelligence resulting from sincerity’. At the extreme right edge of the painting is a collector’s seal, which represents a previous owner of the work. At the bottom of the painting, near the centre, is a seal showing a tiger figure—a common motif in ink art seals.