CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 13, March 2008


Feng Zikai and Yuanyuan Hall | China Heritage Quarterly

Feng Zikai and Yuanyuan Hall

The following excerpt describes the studio or study of the writer, artist and translator, Feng Zikai (1898-1975), and its history as a place of creativity, and as a home. Yuanyuan Hall was destroyed during a Japanese bombing raid on Zhejiang in 1937. It was rebuilt in 1985 by Feng Zikai's family and friends as a memorial to the artist. This studio, along with many other former residences, studies, libraries and studios of famous Chinese writers, has become a tourist site, part of a vast, nationwide network of commercial cultural commemoration. For an example, see the essay on Ji Xiaolan's residence and studio, 'A Non-Princely Mansion from Qing-dynasty Beijing' in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 12 (December 2007), under Articles.—GRB

In his 'Record of the Garden of Nothingness', the Ming writer Liu Shilong describes the efforts of a certain Liu Yuhua to create a garden-retreat of his own far from the clamour of worldy affairs. He notes that all the famous gardens of the past like Shi Chong's legendary Golden Valley Garden had been devastated with the passage of time, 'nothing remains of [such splendid places] but words on paper. Thus even if [Yuhua] was to build a magnificent garden like that, countless generations from now all that would survive is nothingness....' Liu decides therefore to fabricate a Garden of Nothingness, a place built for eternity; it is to be a garden of immutable beauty, a lexical pleasance, for it is a demesne that exists only on paper.

On its construction I neither need waste gold nor expend effort [says Liu].... To build in reality is to be limited by reality itself; while a construction conceived only in the imagination suffers no constraint.... My garden relies not on form but on thought. It can be harmed neither by wind nor rain, flood nor fire. Even if my descendants are wastrels, they will not be able to give away so much as a single plant or a tree.

Although no garden existed outside his description of it, Liu says that whosoever reads his essay will be able to enjoy a short respite in the privacy of his Garden of Nothingness, an ineffable creation of rhetorical imagination.


On the occasion of his thirtieth birthday in September 1927, Feng Zikai had asked Dharma Master Hongyi to officially induct him as a Buddhist layman. It was an important occasion for another reason as Feng also asked the monk, who was staying with his former pupil in the family's Li Da Academy residence at Yongyi Alley in Jiangwan, to help him choose a name for his study, the workroom in which his essays and paintings were produced. The ritual naming of the study, the secluded private space that was an integral part of the public persona of the literatus, was a crucial act of self-identification in the career of any writer or artist. Zikai wrote a number of his favourite characters that could be combined to form a name on slips of paper, rolled them up and then scattered them on the altar in front of a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. The two balls of paper he selected both bore the character yuan, affinity or fated connection. Accordingly, he named the study Yuanyuan Hall, or the Hall of Affinities, Yuanyuan tang. 'From that moment forth you had a soul,' he wrote addressing himself to a place that was now to be something of an alter ego, 'and regardless of where I moved, whether it be Jiaxing, or Shanghai, you and I were inseparable for eight years.'

In describing his ability to produce an ideal ambience for his own work in 1935, one unsullied by the intrusive external world, Feng Zikai availed himself of language highly reminiscent of the late-Ming casual essay, conveying the impression to his readers that he partook of the spirit of 'mountain recluses and literati' of that other age.

What my eyes crave are not the refined and profound art works of the gentry, but rather forms that are elegant, harmonious, natural and pleasing. In our present environment, however, these are the very things we lack. Sometimes I will shut myself away in my room and pretend that I am in my own little world surrounded by an elegant, harmonious, natural and pleasing arrangement of objects. Through them I achieve, for a time at least, a measure of visual relief. But I can also lose myself in a sheaf of white paper and transform it too into a little world, creating there a composition that is elegant, harmonious, natural and pleasing-to-the-eye. Yet elsewhere I search in vain for ways to nourish my vision.

When I become bored with this little world of mine though still starved of food for the eyes, I have no choice but to venture abroad and seek satisfaction in the vastness of natural beauty. But I cannot eat this superior fare too often, for it is too refined, like jade syrup or fairy nectar; it lacks the flavour of humanity, and that is something we mere mortals still crave. Until the day comes when the built environment can provide us with the visual nourishment we require, I have no other choice but to satisfy myself in this fashion, using this utopian yet simple means to achieve satisfaction.

In the spring of 1933, with the royalties from a number of best-selling books accruing, and a small but steady income as a shareholder in Kaiming Books, Feng Zikai finally felt that he had enough money to give concrete form to Yuanyuan Hall. After moving into the rickety old family home in Shimenwan—the Hengde Hall, where 'for three generations our family had celebrated, mourned and lived together'—he had a large two-storey house of his own design constructed next to it. His wife and children had moved back to the town to live with his mother some years earlier, and the extended family had long since adapted itself to the cramped quarters of the old house. From the time of his first success Feng's mother, the earliest guiding influence in the artist's life, had been anxious that he build a new house, and she saved the money he sent her each year to this end. She was to die before her wish could be realized and the move into the new dwelling occasioned a period of self-reproach and regret for Feng: his mother had passed away, and he had not been able to provide a comfortable home for his father, who had spent his last years in the humble quarters of the old house. 'Every time I think about my parents I feel as though building Yuanyuan Hall has been a complete waste of time; life is so meaningless!' As for his mother,

[she] was now resting peacefully under evergreen pines and withered grasses five li away; she cared not to join us in our excitement about moving. It was as though she knew that all too soon our happiness would be shattered; perhaps that is why she did not have the heart to come.

The building was a realization of the artist's particular vision and a reaction against the modern aesthetic, as well as an attempt to claim a space for himself within the walls of a building of his own design. He was keenly aware of the increasing clash between urban styles and values and the norms of country life with which he had grown up. Yuanyuan Hall, now really the Yuanyuan Villa, was, as Feng put it himself, 'a work of art in which flesh and soul were in complete sympathy.'

[I]n giving you a physical form, I was particularly concerned to make you a of a piece. Because you were to be situated in an ancient township it was only natural that I did not want to dress you up in Western garb; I chose instead the most suitable Chinese attire so that you could live in harmony with your surrounds. That's also the reason why I didn't fill you with modern furniture. I drew up the designs myself and had carpenters make everything so that you would be of a piece, both inside and out.

A friend offered him a wooden statuette-table of a black man holding a tray of the kind sold in Shanghai department stores for the living room; he turned it down. 'I felt its presence would clash with the spirit of Yuanyuan Hall.... Your essence is one of peace and happiness, and it would be cruel and inhumane to impose a black slave on you.'

I'm convinced that such an item of furniture would cause me too the greatest discomfort. Just think about it: we would be sitting at ease in our seats smoking, drinking tea and chatting, while forcing a puppet to stand by at attention respectfully holding a tray waiting for our tea cups and cigarette butts. It would be most disconcerting. He may not in fact be human, but the thing is in the shape of a man, and we'd constantly feel ashamed of the way we treated him. Such wooden items of furniture are imports from the West, and are surely remnants of their feudal age.

Even during its construction the two-storey building was the subject of local interest, for apart from its generous scale Feng had the builders tear down the original framework when he found the structure was slightly crooked. A firm believer in the influence of the environment on culture, he said, 'I knew that this spacious and bright [building] best suited my own temperament and would act as a stimulus on the innate tendency within our children towards truth, goodness and beauty.' Although no match for the splendours of the luxurious retreats of traditional fame—Shi Chong's Golden Valley Garden and Emperor Qin Shihuang's Epang Palace—nothing, he said, could have induced him to part with it.

In the spring two peach trees in full blossom with multiple flowers stood guard at your entrance. Inside the red balustrades reflected their hue on the whitewashed walls, while the crimson of the roses was highlighted by their green leaves. In the courtyard an inviting swing, under your eaves the tinkle of windchimes. Swallows twittered outside the main hall, the sound of busy-hands and scissors wafted from the windows. I will never forget this peaceful and happy scene.

In the summer, the bright cherries and the green banana leaves created a brilliant contrast, while hinting to all the ultimate truth of impermanence. The delicate shade of the lush grape vine curling over the trellis reflected into the house and tinged everything and everyone with a pale green light, adding thereby a painterly sheen to our lives. Through the slats of the bamboo screens over the windows the movement of people cast fleeting shadows, while the sound of laughter and chatter from the swing reached us inside. Someone would pass by with baskets of freshly-picked honey peaches, and then soon after there would be the seasonal 'Drunken Pears' from Tongxiang. Outside the call went out: 'We're cutting the watermelon!' In an instant a tribe of brothers and sisters would come streaming forth from all the rooms, both upstairs and down. At dusk a guest would be offered a drink at a small table set up in the shade of the banana tree. I will never forget those joy-filled times.

In the autumn the banana leaves grew so long and tall that they reached over the wall, and cast a canopy of shade inside the courtyard. The ladder at the foot of the grape trellis was always occupied by children scampering up it for the ripe fruit; the small table in front of the window always had a plate of grapes on offer. At night the bright moonlight shone down on our lofty dwelling, the ground lit up as though it were a lake of light. The autumn insects called out in chorus, a symphony for those now at rest in bed. I will never forget those peaceful and leisurely days.

In the winter the south-facing main hall was filled with sunlight. A large pot of water on the charcoal brazier was always on the boil, ready for tea. The whole family would gather around the dining table in the bright light to enjoy the winter-husked rice at lunchtime. It got so hot that we'd all start sweating and have to loosen our clothing. Under the eves of the corridor outside there would be piles of sun-dried taro, in the corner a few large earthen jars of newly-fermented rice wine; in the kitchen there was a store of home-made dried beancurd. On Saturday the children stayed up late while I sat writing. We'd heat some sticky-rice cakes on the stove, or warm ginkgo fruit to stave off the hunger of the wintry night. I will never forget the intimate and relaxed delights quwei of that season.

In the small township of Shimenwan, Yuanyuan Hall stood out, to use Feng's own words, like 'a crane among chickens.' It was the very expression that the Japanese Sinologist and translator of Feng's essays Yoshikawa Kôjirô would later use to describe the artist: 'He stands out amidst the clamorous and argumentative mob of Shanghai-style litterateurs today as does a crane in a brood of chickens.' Eventually, Zikai would comment that by standing tall the crane was inevitably making itself an easy target, although unlike the humble chicken it could take to the skies to avoid the butcher's knife.

—from Geremie R. Barmé, An Artistic Exile, a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.


For the notes to this excerpt, please consult the published book.