Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Traveling of Art and the Art of Traveling: Chiang Yee's Painting and Chinese Cultural Tradition

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Traveling of Art and the Art of Traveling: Chiang Yee's Painting and Chinese Cultural Tradition

Article excerpt

In the early 1970s, Chiang Yee held an individual art exhibition in Hong Kong. Among numerous calligraphies and paintings was The Budai Monk, or The Cloth-bag Monk. The figure of the Budai Monk occupies the central portion of the painting, with a Chinese poem and three small seals at the top and a large seal in the lower right-hand corner (see figure 1).


While this painting may not qualify as a masterpiece or as Chiang's best artwork, it is a particularly interesting and significant case for a number of reasons. First, Asian American studies has generally focused its critical attention on literary texts, mostly post-1970. In comparison, artworks and works of multiple media, which are an essential component of Asian American cultural productions, have been largely under-studied. Second, Asian American studies tends to emphasize the sociopolitical context of the literary works in relation to immigrant cultures in North America. The linkage between immigrant artists, writers, and poets and their indigenous cultural tradition (especially in art and religion) has not been adequately addressed. A study of the images and poem in the painting The Budai Monk illustrates the vital importance of such a link and adds a new facet to the complexity, diversity, and richness of Asian American experience in relation to its cultural tradition. Third, such a study, while underlining the inseparable relationship between the immigrants' cultural presentation and their cultural tradition, may lead us to recognize the significant role that the diasporic condition has played in the production of those cultural artifacts. In other words, with an emphasis on the diasporic nature of Asian American artists, we will gain a better understanding of them and their works.

Chiang's portrayal of a wandering monk, bare-footed, clad in a loose gown with his chest and belly exposed, constituted a conspicuously jarring presence in the late twentieth century, when modernist artists were experimenting with new media, exploring new venues, and inventing new fashions. This paper will address the following questions: What is the implication of Chiang's persistent interest in depicting this ancient wandering monk after having resided overseas for nearly four decades and being known for his presentation of the West in art? What is the significance of the indigenous cultural tradition to a diasporic artist? What is the role of art in diasporic cultural presentation? While addressing these questions, I would like to argue that Chiang's reference to the Chinese tradition constitutes a distinctive mode of cultural representation (i.e., diasporic culture) that may be physically distinct from mainstream culture but that constitutes a vital component of twentieth-century immigrant culture.


The Budai Monk is a popular legendary character in China. As the story goes, in the tenth century there was in Zhejiang Province an eccentric monk named Qieci (also known as Changtingzi), who traveled around carrying a cloth bag on his staff; hence his name, "The Budai Monk," meaning "The Cloth-Bag Monk." He was short, scantily clad, and corpulent, with his protruding belly exposed. Often surrounded by children, he would beg for alms and sleep wherever he paused in his travels. According to the legend, when he slept in snow, his clothes would stay dry; when he wore wet shoes, it was going to rain; when he had wooden sandals on, it was to be a sunny day. In March 917, the Budai sat down on a rock in the Yuelin Temple and chanted the following hymn:

   Maitreya, true Maitreya,
   Dividing himself into hundreds and thousands of bodies,
   Enlightens humans from time to time,
   While unrecognized by the people of his time.
   (Leng and Fan 431)

Having finished the hymn, the Budai Monk passed away in tranquility.

It was after his death that people began to realize that the Budai Monk was the incarnation of Maitreya, a most respected Buddha among the pantheon in many Asian countries. …

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