On 5 October 1975, Newsline, a weekly tabloid in Hong Kong, devoted two pages to the untimely passing of artist Lui Shou-kwan (1919–1975). Published alongside celebrity gossip, Lui’s obituary introduced him as ‘an internationally renowned master painter and art critic’ and ‘a historian of Chinese art and celebrated theorist’. It also underlined his pedagogical achievements as ‘the first-ever educator in the history of China to establish a system for Chinese painting education’. The special coverage portrayed an ink painter with the highest regard from art and literary elites, with anecdotes on his remarkable work ethic. But it is the writer Lee Ying-ho’s comment that Lui was ‘an absolute, individual, free, and independent painter’ that succinctly summarises a fiercely disciplined artist with a presence in mainstream Hong Kong society and a legacy in shaping the city’s emerging cultural identity.
‘Absolute’, ‘individual’, ‘free’, and ‘independent’ in fact were Lui’s own words in describing his values and ambitions. In a series of articles in the Hong Kong Times in 1961 discussing these qualities, he declared that art should be untethered from political, social, and historical dogmas, and that abstract art was a powerful vehicle for sustained self-expression. The ideas were, in part, born from his understanding of an artist’s role in society and Hong Kong’s unique position in the region. Along with Hong Kong’s rise in international trade and manufacturing, the British government fostered a high-functioning society of people from diverse backgrounds who possessed unparalleled social freedom compared to residents of mainland China or Taiwan at that time. In this environment, Lui made radical innovations in ink painting by adopting concepts from Euro–American modernist abstraction to emphasise Chinese aesthetics and philosophy. His updates to Chinese painting fueled a new movement of ink art in the 1960s and carved out a space for many Hong Kong artists to contribute to the development of global modernism.
Born in Guangzhou in 1919, Lui came of age during a period of foreign invasion and civil war. He practised calligraphy and ink painting in his youth and moved to Hong Kong in 1948. The city was then a safe harbour for mainland intellectuals and artists fleeing the Communist regime. Art clubs and painting societies flourished in the absence of formal art institutions.
Lui was one of the youngest participants in the Bingshen Art Club (Ping Sheng Art Club), founded in 1956 by mainland-born artists of the Lingnan School, an early twentieth-century Cantonese painting style that melded realism with subjectivity. Through the Club’s exhibition activities, its members promoted Chinese ink painting in the British colony.
As Lui reinforced his Cantonese heritage in the burgeoning art scene, he fostered an understanding of his adopted home by painting its landscape. Live sketching the city’s dramatic natural scenery and urban development became a routine and groundwork for his paintings. His job as an inspector at the Hong Kong and Yaumatei Ferry Company facilitated this endeavour.
Lion Rock in Winter (1959) portrays the Kowloon landmark from its most photogenic angle, and Government House (1961) shows the centre of colonial power as viewed from the hills above. In the semi-abstract work Hong Kong at Night (1961) bright yellow hues peek through large areas of ink wash, evoking a nocturnal visual experience of an urban setting rarely depicted in traditional paintings. These ink landscapes demonstrate a much stronger local consciousness than souvenir paintings for the British market; they also broke from the traditional practice of painting a classical repertoire of renowned mountains on the mainland. Lui’s distinctive ink aesthetic and use of panoramic views stood out from landscapes by other Hong Kong artists, such as Luis Chan’s fantastical renderings in collage or ink, and Hon Chi-fun’s impressionistic oil paintings.
Like many artists of the Chinese diaspora, Lui’s choice of landscape as his primary subject was a testament to the genre’s prestige and versatility in the painting tradition. He cites as inspiration Wang Wei (692–761), commonly viewed as the progenitor of the landscape tradition favoured by the learned class—the literati. As Lui wrote in his notes about Tang painting, Wang’s poetry ‘broke through politics and religion’, and by bringing poeticism into painting, he devised ‘the biggest liberation in Chinese painting’. Lui also admired the wild, splashed ink painting by Wang Qia (734–805) and the ‘primordial stroke’ by the monk painter Shi Tao (1642–1707). To him, their inclination toward unhinged expressions, or xieyi in Chinese terms, came from a cultivated taste and a mastery of traditional techniques, as well as an ability to truthfully reflect the heart and mind. Spiritual sublimation expressed through the materiality and spontaneity of ink was essential to Lui’s exploration in abstraction. Moreover, he saw an affinity between Wang Qia’s work and action paintings by Jackson Pollock, whose art and career he studied carefully. Evidently, Lui recognised the modernist qualities of classical Chinese art and identified historical precedents compatible with concepts of twentieth-century modernity.
The ‘Zen’ paintings Lui began making in the late 1960s marked a breakthrough in his career. Though named after Chan Buddhism (which developed in China after the sixth century and spread to Japan as Zen Buddhism), Lui’s signature style also draws from Confucianism and Daoism. The monumental Zen (1970) shows layers of ink wash topped by gestural strokes, except for the untouched space at the bottom. The contrast between black and white, void and solid, lifts the gaze through the black and tints of red, yellow, and blue underneath to reach a ray of light on the upper left.
To Lui, ‘formlessness’ was connected to abstraction, a detachment from the material world, as well as his ideological center of freedom and individuality. He saw the moment of enlightenment best captured by scholar Zhou Dunyi’s (1017–1073) poem On the Love of the Lotus (ailian shuo), which idolises the flower: ‘It rises from the mud yet remains unstained’. A celebration of one’s moral fortitude became a rich visual source for Lui’s Zen paintings.
Typically in this series, the lower half is comprised of saturated ink masses, or flat and dry strokes, and atop floats a dash of red—like a budding lotus. There Were No Methods in Antiquity (1968), showcased in the Hong Kong Pavilion at the Expo ’70 in Osaka, was exemplary of the latter variation.
His focus on Zen can be seen as part of a postwar tendency to explore meaning by activating philosophical traditions reacting to social, political, and technological changes worldwide. Yoshihara Jiro, founder of the Gutai Art Association, made oil paintings that updated the pre-modern Japanese Zen painting, in which enlightenment is represented by a single, circular stroke. Similarly, calligrapher Morita Shiryū experimented with the materiality of ink using the all-encompassing form. Though these Japanese artists were likely unaware of Lui’s work, and vice versa, they shared a soul-searching mission to stand against cultural dominance from the West.
Beyond the deliberate choice to participate in the international modernist abstraction to assert their cosmopolitan vision, they demonstrated the potential of a robust, native aesthetic system and philosophical foundation, whose meanings and expressions could be constantly renewed and reinterpreted. Indeed, Zen philosophy also inspired artists of the American counterculture and conceptual art, including Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) and John Cage, who sought alternatives to the systems of knowledge and art production in the Western world. These kindred connections across continents and artistic expressions propose an intellectual conversation around Zen that impacted both Western and East Asian art and highlight how Lui’s profound explorations have far-reaching resonances.
Ink Without Borders
Beginning in the 1950s, Lui built a serious reputation by writing articles on his artistic and intellectual discoveries for mainstream Chinese-language newspapers, which also circulated in overseas communities. He taught painting and art history to emerging artists and housewives alike and designed the extramural courses in Chinese painting at the University of Hong Kong and the Department of Extramural Studies (now School of Continuing and Professional Studies) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Students, including Wucius Wong, Irene Chou, and Ha Bik-chuen, among others, saw in him a role model for artistic integrity and innovation and an inspired guide to classical Chinese art. In an interview about Lui, Leung Kui Ting recalled how he encouraged acolytes to explore their own styles, rather than copying his, ‘Do not copy my painting; those who do will find a dead end,’ a tip he also imparted to his own students.
Many of Lui’s students became key exponents of the New Ink Movement, which sought to modernise Chinese painting through abstraction in 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong. Leung and some of his peers later ventured into graphic design, bringing Lui’s influence to other areas of visual culture. The Movement demonstrated the versatility of ink, which helped galvanise a local scene and served as a vehicle to facilitate international networking and recognition.
Lui’s ‘elder statesman’ status—at the age of 41—was cemented in 1960 when he was named honorary chair of the Modern Literature and Art Association, founded two years before by painter Wucius Wong, poet Wai-lim Yip (b. 1937), and writers Lee Ying-ho (b. 1941) and Quanan Shum (b. 1935, also the editor of Newsline). The group’s Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings showed abstract and semi-abstract works by artists in Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea alongside local talents. By devising an international scope, Lui and his colleagues put Hong Kong on the map of modernist abstraction. His statement about the event affirms this vision: ‘[I]t announces the aggregation, the intercommunication, and the intertwining of art culture between the East and West.’
Through his exposure abroad and personal connections, Lui cultivated a network of international abstract art. In 1958, Lui met Chinese–French artist Zao Wou-Ki, a pivotal voice in the Ėcole de Paris, when the latter lectured at the New Asia College. Lui had an affinity to Zao’s insistence on individuality and admired his technically and emotionally complex abstract works that embody a deep appreciation for Chinese ink aesthetics. Zao’s oil painting was later included in the First Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings, underscoring the narrative of abstraction made by the Chinese diaspora.
In addition to bringing international voices to Hong Kong, Lui also pursued exhibition opportunities overseas and exhibited in galleries in the US and UK throughout the 1960s. In 1968, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London showed Lui next to a work by American Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb in an exhibition on twentieth-century watercolours. While the curatorial arrangement seemed to rest on formal resemblance and materiality rather than artistic intention, Lui seemed proud of the inclusion in a major museum, which validated his effort to modernise ink in a broader context of global culture. Lui also joined the Republic of China delegation in the 1965 São Paulo Bienal, showing with Fifth Moon Painting Society and Ton Fan Painting Society, two major modernist groups in Taipei. Together they represented a language of modernist abstraction rooted in Chinese heritage at one of the most important contemporary art events at the time.
Throughout his short but impactful career, Lui opened possibilities for a heritage medium to remain relevant and rigorous. The fact that he was mostly self-taught and never went abroad—the only trip outside of Hong Kong was to Taiwan in 1971—makes his ambitious vision and transnational accomplishments even more exceptional. His commitment to individuality and modernity laid the groundwork for ink art in Hong Kong to flourish and participate in a global cultural conversation that is still ongoing today.
This article has been updated to reflect that Lui Shou-kwan was teaching at the Department of Extramural Studies (now School of Continuing and Professional Studies) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The group photo with May Zao and Zao Wou-ki Zou Wou-ki was taken at the Lingnan Club.
In 2019, M+ received the Lui Shou-kwan Archive as a gift in the artist’s honour. Unless otherwise noted, historical documents referred to in this essay can be accessed through the M+ Research Centre.
For instance, painter Wucius Wong attributed the emergence of ink painting in Hong Kong and the push for abstraction in Chinese painting to him.
Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, Art of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 232.
The City Hall Gallery (the precursor to the Hong Kong Museum of Art) was established in 1962 and served as the main institution that supports artistic activities.
For more on the appeal of landscape painting to the Chinese diaspora, see ‘“The New Chinese Landscape” in The Cold War Era’, in Visual Representations of the Cold War and Postcolonial Struggles: Art in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Midori Yamamura and Yu-Chieh Li (London: Routledge, 2021), 9–30. Lui’s Hong Kong landscapes also fulfilled a demand in the British market. Geoffrey Barker, Lui’s long-time dealer in the UK, had written extensively to him about the enthusiastic reception of his Hong Kong landscapes, and urged him to make more. Barker to Lui, March 8, 1963. LSKA, M+.
Pollock was quoted in Modern American Painting and Sculpture saying “During the painting process I do not quite notice what I was painting. Only after I was done I would see what I painted,” which Lui noted in agreement on the margins on p. 143. Sam Hunter, Modern American Painting and Sculpture, Chinese Edition, trans. Chen Ziming and Tang Xinmei (Hong Kong: World Today Press, 1966). LSKA, M+.
For more on this, see Alexandra Munroe, ‘Buddhism and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Cage Zen, Beat Zen, and Zen’ in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009), 199–215.
Author conversation with the artist, Hong Kong, 2017.
Lesley Ma is currently the Ming Chu Hsu and Daniel Xu Associate Curator of Asian Art in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met. She was formerly the Curator of Ink Art at M+.