Shi Tao: A Life of Contradiction
Shi Tao's Self-portrait
Shi Tao, born Zhu Ruoji, is known as one of “the Four Monk Painters of the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)”.
Born in Guilin, Guangxi province, Shi Tao was a kinsman of the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 1644, after falling to the invading Manchurians and civil rebellion, the Ming Dynasty was overthrown.
Shi’s father, Zhu Kengjia, rebelled in Guangxi province and was later captured and killed, when Shi Tao was only three-years-old. It is said that he was taken away by a eunuch and in 1651 became a Buddhist monk.
Shi led a wandering life for a long time. He migrated from Wuchang, where he began his religious instruction, to Anhui in the 1660s. During this period, he read many books and visited abundant places, laying a solid foundation for his paintings. Throughout the 1680s he lived in Nanjing and Yangzhou.
Many believe Shi’s conversion to Buddhism served as a political pretense or a way of saving life since he kept paying attention to the occurrences in the outside world when he stayed in the Buddhist temple.
When the Qing Dynasty Emperor visited South China, Shi Tao received him with a warm welcome.
Shortly after, Shi went to Beijing to find patronage for his promotion within the monastic system. After his arrival in Beijing, he lived in Ci Yuan Temple which was dilapidated and dirty. Nobody, including the contemporary Emperor Kang Xi, was interested in his talks about Zen. He was only treated as a monk who could paint.