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


Artist Sobriquets ad Studio Names | China Heritage Quarterly

Artist Sobriquets and Studio Names

Claire Roberts

For a Chinese artist, a studio name is suggestive of his or her artistic persona and the creative realm from which they draw inspiration. It is a highly personal construction of words that serves to link the artist to ideas, people or places, often in the past, but also to the present. The name can allude to a physical space such as a studio, a library or a building where the act of painting, writing or thinking happens, but equally it may just be an imaginary place or conjure a poetic sensibility expressive of the artist's temperament.

The traditional Chinese scholar had a strong grounding in the classics, literature, philosophy, history and epigraphy and was also trained in the arts of calligraphy and painting, regarded as the ultimate expression of ones cultivation and erudition. The close relationship that has existed between writing and scholarly pursuits and painting resulted from the use of common materials: brush and ink.

Studio names are an integral part of the process of artistic and literary creation. They do not remain static and often shift in and out of use. Many artists and writers adopt new names to reflect changes in physical circumstances or their mental world. Many names refer to desirable human qualities that may be linked to Confucian, Buddhist or Daoist thought, such as modesty, humbleness or rusticity, or to historical or literary allusions that reveal erudition. Studio names usually appear as seals on paintings or in inscriptions on paintings and essays and may be ironic or humorous. They are often playful.

Studio names also have a close relationship to artist names – the names that artists bestow on themselves at different times in their lives, which also reflect their artistic personas. In order to suggest some of the ways in which studio and artist names functioned, below we discuss names used by of two Chinese painters whose lives span 150 years from the mid nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries: Huang Binhong and Li Keran.

Huang Binhong 黃賓虹 (1865-1955) is widely regarded as one of the greatest Chinese landscape painters of the twentieth century and one of the last direct links to the tradition of scholar-painting. Over the course of his life he used many artist names and studio names, many of them with strong links to his ancestral village and to nearby Huangshan or Yellow Mountain in Anhui province. Here, we mention only a small number of names that relate closely to the Binhong Pavilion in Tandu Village from whence Huang Binhong derived his primary artist name.

Unlike Huang Binhong, Li Keran 李可染 (1907-1989) studied oil painting before turning to Chinese brush and ink painting and is considered one of the most important official Chinese artists of the second half of the twentieth century. His paintings reflect the dramatic changes that occurred to Chinese art pedagogy and his attempts to draw on elements of Chinese and Western painting traditions to create an art form better suited to the twentieth century. In conveying information about Li Keran's studio names and their significance I have drawn heavily on an essay in Chinese by Wang Luxiang titled 'Li Keran's studio names'.

Huang Binhong

Huang Binhong was born in Jinhua, east Zhejiang province where his family had fled following the Taiping wars (1851-64). He was the first son in a family of four boys and three girls. His father, Huang Dinghua (1829-1894), was a successful textile merchant, and belonged to a distinguished lineage of scholar-officials, artists and merchants with ancestral roots in Shexian, Anhui.

Huang Binhong was given the name Maozhi 懋質 at birth, which may be translated as 'Great and substantial', and his first name was Yuanji 元吉 meaning 'Originating luck'. The choice of name was influenced by his birth date, the 27th day of the first month of the lunar calendar (corresponding to 25 March 1865) on the cusp of the lunar new year. The name Yuanji therefore aludes to the first born son and the first day of the new year. In 1886 at the age of 23 he changed his name from Huang Maozhi 黃懋質 to Huang Zhi 黃質 which is the name that appears on his early seals and as his signature on paintings and essays. After reaching adulthood Huang adopted the style name Pucun 樸存 which may be translated as 'To remain honest and simple'. Huang used the characters 'zhi' and 'pu' together with a number of other significant words to create an array of interconnected names including Huang Puren 黃樸人, Pucun Huang Zhi 樸存黃質 and Pu jushi 樸 居士. One of Huang Binhong's most frequently used artist names was Binhong 濱虹, meaning 'Rainbow at the water's edge'. He explains that it derives from the Binhong Pavilion in Tandu Village:

My ancestors are from Tandu Village. Binhong Pavilion was one of the most beautiful sites perched on Mount Huang's Fengle (Abundant Happiness) Stream. After the fall of the Qing I adopted this as my personal name.[1]

The calligraphy for the plaque naming the Binhong pavilion 濱虹亭 was written by Huang Binhong's ancestor Huang Lü 黃呂 and was regarded as one of the eight famous sights of Tandu. In other artist names Binhong was used alone, or coupled with the characters 'pu' or 'zhi'. Around 1917, Huang Binhong changed his artist name from 濱虹 to 賓虹. Bin without the water radical can mean visitor or guest, or to obey or submit. The change in the orthography of the character is minor from a calligraphic point of view but the altered meaning is significant. While the precise reason for the change is not known it is possible that by dropping the water radical, Huang Binhong hoped to stem a run of bad luck, for his second daughter had died in 1915 and his eldest son died in 1917. The choice of this character also highlighted his visitor or guest status in Shanghai, the city in which he resided for close to thirty years from 1909, and in so doing re-affirmed his family connection to Shexian. This form of Binhong is the most long-lived of his artist names and is the name by which we know the artist today. Huang Binhong's most commonly used studio names were Binhong's Thatch-roofed Studio (Binhong caotang 賓虹草堂) and Hong's Hut (Honglu 虹廬, which may also be understood as Hong of Lu, referring to Luzhou the ancient prefecture near Hefei in Anhui) both of which may be seen to derive from the Binhong pavilion in Tandu village, Shexian.

Through his choice of artist and studio as well as the subject matter for his paintings, Huang Binhong made a conscious decision to link himself to the landscape in and around his ancestral village, Tandu in Shexian. The mountains, streams, bridges and pavilions of Tandu Village provided him with rich artistic inspiration and a vocabulary of words that resonated with the geography and history of the area. Many of Huang's chosen sobriquets refer to places he was attached to, artists he admired or things that had a symbolic resonance and accorded with his artistic sensibility. He used many homophones, in particular for the words bin and hong, which point to a highly attuned and playful use of literary language. Together the names evoke the culture of a particular landscape and highlight Huang Binhong's fascination with geography and history. Through his choice of names Huang Binhong places himself in a specific landscape of cultural and historical memory.

Li Keran

Li Keran was born Li Yongshun ('eternal accord') in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province and was given the name Keran, which literally means 'He who can paint', by his Chinese painting teacher. He studied oil painting at the Shanghai Art College and the Hangzhou National Art Academy before turning to ink painting in the 1940s. Among his teachers and mentors were Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), the French modernist André Claudot (1892-1982), Qi Baishi (1864-1957) and Huang Binhong. From 1950 until his death he had a close association with the Department of Chinese Painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Throughout his life Li Keran used six different studio names: 'House of Bamboo' 有君堂, 'Studio of the Ten Teachers' 十師齋, 'Hut Where I Learn from the Buffalo' 師牛堂, 'Studio of Deficient Knowledge' 識缺齋, 'Studio of the Heavenly Sea' 天海樓, and 'Pavilion of Ink Heaven' 墨天閣.[2]

'House of Bamboo' was Li Keran's earliest studio name and appears on paintings dating from 1943. At the time Li Keran was a tutor of Chinese painting at the National Art Institute (Guoli yishu zhuanke xuexiao) in Chongqing. While living in Chongqing he was startled to find bamboo shoots growing up through the floor of his house. He was prompted to think of the words of a Jin scholar 'Not a day should pass without being in the company of bamboo/a noble gentleman' (不可一日无此君) and so named his dwelling 'The House of Bamboo'. Bamboo is known as one of the 'three friend's of winter' and the evergreen plant has long been symbolic of the scholar: someone who is upright in character, steadfast and flexible while maintaining principle.

In the revolutionary environment of the1950s, Li Keran rarely used studio names because of their association with the philosophical and creative world of the literati, deemed to be no longer relevant. Added to this, from1953 the majority of Li Keran's paintings were created en plein air and not in the studio, so the idea of adding a studio seal no longer seemed appropriate. Instead, Li Keran asked his mentor, the respected painter, calligrapher and seal carver Qi Baishi, to create a seal for him carved with the contemporary phrase 'Serve the People'. It is this seal rather than 'The House of Bamboo' that can be found on many of Li's paintings dating from the 1950s.

It was not until the early 1980s that Li Keran once again began to use his studio name 'The House of Bamboo', a period that coincided with his move away from painting en plein air to freer, studio-based artistic expression and ink play.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Li Keran often referred to his studio as the 'Studio of the Ten Teachers' 十師齋, though there is no seal naming the studio nor did he use this studio name to inscribe his paintings. Interestingly, the ten teachers to whom he refers are ten of China's greatest historical landscape painters: Fan Kuan (ca.1000-1031), Li Tang (ca. 1050-ca. 1130), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Li Cheng (916-967), Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), Wang Meng (1308-1385), Kuncan (1612-1673), Gong Xian (1619-1689), Bada Shanren (1625-ca.1705) and Shitao (1642-1707). Through his use of the name 'Studio of the Ten Teachers', Li Keran alludes to the ongoing cultural and artistic importance of these painters to his own artistic practice despite the lack of official interest in and support for much traditional Chinese landscape painting during 1950s, 60s and 70s.

In addition to painting landscape and figures, Li Keran is also celebrated for his paintings of water buffalo. Li's best-known studio name is 'Hut Where I Learn from the Buffalo' 師牛堂. In 1940 while living with a farming family near Chongqing, Li Keran found himself occupying a room next to the buffalo shed. His close proximity to the buffalo made him reflect on the important contribution the buffalo made to farming, in life through its labour in the field and in death through its skin, meat, bones and horns. He was also struck by Lu Xun's (1881-1936) comparison of himself to a buffalo in the a line of poetry in which he wrote 'willingly I become a bull for the sake of the children' 俯首甘為孺子牛 and Guo Moruo's (1892-1978) essay 'In Praise of Water Buffalo', where Guo suggests that the water buffalo should be regarded as a national emblem. While Li Keran's paintings of water buffalo date from the 1940s, according to Li Keran's wife, it was not until 1979 when he was being filmed for a documentary that he decided to call his studio 'Hut Where I Learn from the Buffalo'.

Beginning in 1988 Li Keran began to use the studio name 'Pavilion of Ink Heaven'. The use of this name coincides with Li Keran's late period when he actively explored the properties of ink. Use of this name can also be associated with his interest in the work of historical artists who were masters of ink technique and whose work he admired, notably Mi Fu, Dong Qichang (1555-1636), Gong Xian, Badashanren, Shitao and Huang Binhong.

Li Keran's use of 'Pavilion of Ink Heaven', his last studio name, highlights the resilience of aspects of the scholarly tradition in the second half of the twentieth century and his fascination with the Chinese scholar-artist's creative space. In old age Li Keran sought a greater freedom of artistic expression and was attracted, once again, to the unfettered mental creative realm of the traditional scholar artist.


1. Huang Binhong, 'Bashi zishu', Huang Binhong wenji, zazhu bian, Shanghai: Shanghai Shuhua Chubanshe, 1999, p.4.

2. This introduction to Li Keran's studio names is based on translated excerpts from an essay by Wang Luxiang, 'Li Keran huashi de zhaiming tanghao' in Li Xiaoke and Chen Ling eds. Shiji Keran: Jinian Li Keran dancheng 100 zhounian, Wenxian ji (A Century of Keran: commemorating the centenary of Li Keran, Documents volume), Changchun: Jilin Meishu Chubanshe, 2007, pp.296-300.