Shortlist | Lui Shou Kwan and the New Ink Painting Movement in Hong Kong

Shortlists offer thematic selections from AAA’s Collection, including overviews and annotations by invited contributors. The following shortlist by Eliza Lai looks at the legacy of the artist and educator who inspired the New Ink Painting Movement.


Lui Shou Kwan was a pioneering figure in the post-WWII modern ink painting movement in Hong Kong, and an accomplished educator instrumental in the promotion of the art of Chinese painting. Lui sought to inherit and further the tradition of modern ink painting through writing, teaching, organising, and curating exhibitions. Lui continually broke new ground in his creation process, and was committed to establishing a comprehensive modern ink painting education system, with hopes of cultivating a new generation of talents to revive the Chinese painting tradition and spirit alongside him. Under Lui’s guidance, there was a surge of innovative ink painting in the 60s and 70s in the Hong Kong art scene, known as the New Ink Painting Movement, coinciding with a time of economic and cultural transition in the region. After the 1967 riots, the British colonial government had introduced a series of policies to improve livelihood; the postwar generation in Hong Kong also came of age during this period, and a slew of such factors gave birth to a unique Hong Kong identity and culture amongst locals.

Born in Guangzhou, Lui earned his bachelor’s in economics at the Guangzhou University after the Second World War. He immediately sank himself into researching Chinese painting history, painting theory, as well as the artistic techniques developed by different art streams and movements throughout Chinese history. He and his family moved to Hong Kong in 1948. The British colony was relatively free at the time, and in an environment which encouraged openness, Lui was quickly introduced to European and American modern art. He began emulating Western painting styles using traditional Chinese mediums such as paper, pen, and ink. Lui dabbled with works in the styles of Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstractism. For several years Lui experimented with blending the two styles, and in the 50s his works saw a shift: he was gradually moving away from imitating the styles of the old masters to the early phase of featuring Hong Kong’s scenery in his works. His scenic works showcased both traditional Chinese freehand techniques and the Western styles of sketching and watercolour. In the years that followed, Lui moved towards the direction of semi-abstract and pure abstraction. Amongst these works, the most prominent are his Zen paintings, which combined Chinese philosophy and Western abstract expressionism. Some of these works featured calligraphy and Zen idioms, while others were composed with lotus patterns or portrayed the nirvana state of mind; they would eventually become the most defining works in Lui’s life. These were also the artworks that solidified the position he would occupy in the history of Hong Kong modern art, and gave rise to his fame in Britain, America, and other Western art centres.

In the 50s, as Lui pushed for innovation in his creative process, he also frequently published art reviews in Hong Kong’s newspapers and magazines. Armed with an in-depth knowledge of Chinese painting, theory, and techniques from his time in Guangzhou, and steeped in the influence of European and American modern art in Hong Kong, Lui gradually developed a set of systematic and creative teaching methods and concepts. In 1966, Lui resigned from his job as an inspector at the Yau Ma Tei Ferry Company and devoted all his energy to creating and teaching. Since then, he began teaching traditional Chinese painting techniques and courses on ink painting at the continuing education schools at University of Hong Kong (HKU) and Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where he was able to put into practice the modern teaching philosophy and models he had conceived over time.

Lui’s teaching especially left a mark on CUHK. Within a short period of time, Lui mentored a new group of ink painters, including Wucius Wong (b. 1936), Irene Chou (1924–2011), Laurence Tam Chi-sing (1933–2013), and others who created dynamic ink paintings alongside him. Under Lui’s guidance, the group actively held exhibitions and curated activities to promote modern ink painting, which to an extent broke the trend of imitation amongst Chinese painting circles at the time, and the dominance of Western paintings in the local art scene. Although the works by Lui’s disciples are not as mature at this time, overall they displayed multifaceted ideas and refreshing creative techniques that quickly made them the new darlings of the art scene. Lui’s proclivity to be blunt, his outspokenness, and conviction in his ideas, means that in class and in his writing, he would often attack “bad practices” in the Chinese painting circle, especially the painters’ penchant for conservatism; his passionate outbursts and vicious criticism attracted a fair amount of controversy for him and his followers, and even triggered a war of words between the painters and art critics. Nevertheless, the movement gained unprecedented momentum in the 60s and 70s, marking an important milestone in Hong Kong’s modern art history.        

Lui Shou Kwan’s life in art oscillated between artistic creation and education—his status as an educator was especially unmatched. In recent years, the majority of the discussion about Lui has been focused on his works, and rarely discussed his pedagogy; in this shortlist, I include a selection of important reference materials from Asia Art Archive with brief overviews, to facilitate readers’ understanding of Lui’s aspirations and contributions in the field of art education.


Lui Shou Kwan, Studies of Traditional Chinese Painting, Hong Kong, 1957. [REF.LSK]

Image: Cover of <i>Studies of Traditional Chinese Painting</i>.
Image: Cover of Studies of Traditional Chinese Painting.

In 1957, the criticism Lui published in the Overseas Chinese Daily News was collected into the book Studies of Traditional Chinese Painting, which analyses various elements of Chinese painting including lines, colour, style, and aura, using new perspectives. In 1968, Lui established a studio in his residence and taught Chinese painting; Wucius Wang was one of his earliest disciples. Since the mid-to-late sixties, the master-disciple duo has been collaborating to promote modern ink painting. In September of the same year, Lui was put in charge of the art curriculum at a middle school in Zhongshan, kickstarting a seventeen-year teaching career.   


Lui Shou Kwan, Lectures on Chinese Ink Painting, Lee’s Studio, Hong Kong, 1972. [Asia Art Archive, Ha Bik Chuen Archive]

In 1972, some ex-students of Lui’s Ink Painting Class at CUHK’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies collected their notes and recordings of the classes, as well as Lui’s teaching outline and lecture transcript, into the book Lectures on Chinese Ink Painting, as a gesture of gratitude towards their teacher. The book uses a question-and-answer format to delve into issues relating to Chinese painting, covering a broad range of topics including ancient studies and painting concepts, landscape painting techniques, as well as techniques such as pen-holding and the use of ink and paper. The students’ class assignments are included at the end of the book.

The collection also mentions that Lui disapproved of the traditional teacher-disciple practice of having students copy the teachers’ paintings: Lui suggested that it hindered the development of the students, and the book even infers that this was the reason why guohua (Chinese painting) was on the decline during the Ming-Ching era. Although Lui himself had also incorporated into his lectures exercises that would require students to copy ancient works, natural landscapes, and still life, and learn techniques from previous dynasties, he demanded that his students develop their own unique style in their practice after learning said techniques. Lectures on Chinese Ink Painting is thus an important reference that illustrates Lui’s pedagogy and ideology.

On the book’s title, Lecture on Chinese Ink Painting, the term “ink painting” came into use during the 60s and 70s, which coincided with the period Lui was active in the Hong Kong art scene. Before this, works that were made with traditional mediums and drafted on paper or silk were known as Chinese painting or guohua; the former was popularised in the early-twentieth century, and the latter only emerged in the twentieth century. Chinese painting was initially categorised according to subject matter (such as landscape, flowers and birds, portraits), format (hanging scroll, long scroll, album), and style (gongbi, freehand, ink). Although Chinese painting or guohua are the umbrella terms for such paintings, they are all-encompassing terms, and the names themselves also indicate a strong sense of nationalism that imply that Chinese traditional paintings should be distinct from painting styles that were brought into the country from overseas.

In the book, Lui first explained that ink painting is a category of Chinese painting, and then gave brief and systematic introductions to the terms “painting,” “ink,” and “ink painting,” to help readers understand the art form’s significance and historical context. An important note is that Lui deliberately elevated the status of ink painting so that it would be comparable to Chinese painting and guohua, broadening the definition of ink painting as well as its framework; he also categorised the schools of ideology and philosophical spirit into whether it leaned more towards the East or the West. Lui also adopted an open attitude towards non-traditional tools and philosophies, incorporating materials such as luminescent paint, techniques like photocopying images, and design elements, into the medium of ink painting. Lui broke down the definition of ink painting so that it would include only basic components; painters then can use both traditional Chinese and Western paint to make their works according to their own preference. Lui’s ultimate goal is to push the boundaries of what constitutes “ink painting” so that its only requirement is “painting which uses ink to express oneself”—in other words, an original work of modern Chinese painting, as opposed to traditional Chinese painting which often lacks individuality. 


1st Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings — Exhibition Catalogue, St. John's Cathedral Halls, Hong Kong, 1960. [Hong Kong Art History Research Project]

Image: Exhibition catalogue of <i>1st Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings</i>.
Image: Exhibition catalogue of 1st Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings.

Wucius Wang and his friends in the art and cultural sector established The Modern Literature and Art Association Hong Kong in December 1958, with Wang serving as the first president. The club’s slogan was “Remaking Chinese Culture,” and frequently created publications and organised exhibitions to promote this idea. The following year, Wang invited Lui to become an honorary consultant; with Lui’s assistance, the group curated three iterations of Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings in 1960, 1962, and 1964. The works chosen to take part in the three salons were mostly by local artists, and some others from Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and France. The catalogue of images in the 1st Hong Kong International Salon of Paintings — Exhibition Catalogue gives the reader an introduction to the painting styles of the time.

The association gradually disintegrated after the third salon in 1964, and its members, along with other artists, formed the Circle Art Group. The group was active until 1971, and held an exhibition every year, which were influenced by Western art trends, such as abstract expressionism, hard-edge painting, pop art, optics, photorealism, etc. Lui was both a friend and mentor of the members of Circle Art group, and he also published articles that recommended their exhibitions. Wang recalled that Lui’s increasingly mature abstract expressionist works more or less influenced the works of some of the members. 


The First Joint Exhibition of In Tao Art Association — Catalogue, Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 1968. [Asia Art Archive, the Ha Bik Chuen Archive]

One Art Group First Joint Exhibition — Catalogue, Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 1971. [Asia Art Archive, the Ha Bik Chuen Archive]

In Tao Group and One Art Group was established in 1968 and 1970, respectively—most of the founding members were students from Lui’s Ink Painting class. The In Tao Group organised three joint exhibitions in 1968, 1970, and 1972, as well as Monthly Art Talks, where Lui was featured as one of the guest speakers. In Tao Group broke up after the three joint exhibitions, and the One Art Group subsequently emerged. Its members aimed to break conventions and usher in a new era of modern ink painting. The works from the members of the two art groups usually focus on landscape, with simple and abstract styles; some embodied the spirit of Chinese painting, but most demonstrated clear influences of Western modern painting styles. These works have been collected in the first exhibition catalogue. Members of both clubs explored new ways of expression using the ink and paper medium, although One Art Group contained more members and was active for a longer period of time, and therefore played a far more important role in the rise of the New Ink Painting Movement. It was only until the mid-80s that the group slowly faded out of the picture.


Tam Chi Shing, The Cradle of New Chinese Ink Painting Movement: Experiments in Learning and Teaching of New Chinese Ink Painting of Wah Yan College, 1966-1971, Hong Kong, 2006. [EXL.HGK.CNC]    

Image: Cover of <i>The cradle of new Chinese ink painting movement: experiments in learning and teaching of new Chinese ink painting of Wah Yan College, Kowloon</i>.
Image: Cover of The cradle of new Chinese ink painting movement: experiments in learning and teaching of new Chinese ink painting of Wah Yan College, Kowloon.

Tam Chi Shing was previously the chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and taught art at the Wah Yan College Kowloon between 1956 and 1971; from 1966 to 1968, he was a student of Lui’s ink painting course at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In Tam’s junior secondary art classes, he introduced Lui’s practice of using dot, line, surface, and body, to analyse Chinese paintings. Like Lui, Tam hoped to ignite the students’ creativity through new teaching methods, and guide them to make ink paintings with an independent spirit. This shows that Lui’s influence in the teaching arena had already transcended beyond just adult education, and has entered the formal early secondary school education system. For a while, Tam borrowed an art studio in the school where he taught, so that Lui could run teaching and demonstration sessions for his Chinese University ink painting students. According to Tam, the art studio was a site that contributed to the founding of the In Tao Group and One Art Group, and thus he regarded Wah Yan College as the cradle of the New Ink Painting Movement.


Lui Shou Kwan, Manuscripts by Lu Shoukwan, The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2005. [MON.LSK]

Image: Cover of <i>Manuscripts by Lu Shoukwan</i>.
Image: Cover of Manuscripts by Lu Shoukwan.

Lui Shou Kwan viewed himself as someone who was tasked with the responsibility of reviving the art of Chinese painting, and he had passion and a sense of mission towards teaching; one of his ambitions was to set up a system for modern art education. After the emergence of the In Tao Group and One Art Group, Lui continued to teach at Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong, to train a new generation of talent that would research Chinese traditional painting. In 1975, he unfortunately passed away and left behind several hundred thousands of manuscripts, including his teaching notes from 1973; after thirty or so years, Manuscripts by Lu Shoukwan was finally published. The book is divided into seventeen parts, traversing East and West, past and present; many of the themes relate to Chinese painting ideology and schools of thought, such as the ideology and techniques behind ink painting. The book also touches on Chinese and Western philosophy, politics, natural sciences, films, and other topics. The publication of the manuscript is the crystallisation of half a lifetime’s worth of teaching, and can be read as the prototype of modern art education.


Hong Kong Art Today Exhibition Catalogue, City Museum and Art Gallery, Hong Kong, 1962. [Ha Bik Chuen Archive, Asia Art Archive]

Art Now Hong Kong: Ink Painting I, City Museum and Art Gallery, Hong Kong, 1971. [Hong Kong Art History Research Project]

Image: Cover of <i>Art Now Hong Kong: Ink Painting I</i>.
Image: Cover of Art Now Hong Kong: Ink Painting I.

In 1962, the Hong Kong City Museum and Art Gallery (later renamed the Hong Kong Museum and Art Gallery in 1969) was established; it hosted the Hong Kong Today exhibition, with participants that consisted of forty-eight local and foreign artists residing in Hong Kong. The exhibition had seventeen special exhibiting artists, including Lui Shou Kwan and Wucius Wang. The following year, Lui was invited to be the honorary consultant of the City Museum and Art Gallery. In 1971, the City Museum and Art Gallery organised a similarly renamed exhibition called Art Now Hong Kong, and published three exhibition catalogues—“ink painting,” “painting,” “print and sculpture.” This was the first time that ink painting was officially distinguished from the larger painting genre, which meant the term was starting to gain traction in the local art scene. Six ink painting artists took part in this exhibition, including Huang Bore (1901–68), Lui Shou Kwan, and four other disciples. In 1975, the establishment was renamed the Hong Kong Museum of Art; in the same year it held the Hong Kong Art Biennial, and established the Urban Council Art Award. Since the first iteration and all through the 80s, Lui’s students continually won awards—these were the fruits of Lui’s teaching labour, and it assured that the torch of the New Ink Painting Movement would be passed on to the next generation.


An Anthology of Hong Kong Modern Ink Painting, ed. Lee Chun Yi, Hong Kong Modern Chinese Ink Painting Association (Hong Kong), Hong Kong, 2001. [REF.LCY]

Image: Cover of <i>An Anthology of Hong Kong Modern Ink Painting</i>.
Image: Cover of An Anthology of Hong Kong Modern Ink Painting.

Another person credited with contributing to the long-term development of modern ink painting in Hong Kong is Liu Guosong (b. 1932). Liu came to Hong Kong from Taiwan in 1971 to teach at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Fine Arts Department; two years later, he established the first modern ink painting course in the department, and in the same year set up a two-year diploma ink painting course at the university’s Department of Extramural Studies. The course ran for three iterations, and gave birth to many modern ink painters, many of whom are still active in the art scene. The book’s editor, Lee Chun Yi (b. 1965) graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Arts, and was one of Liu Guosong's star pupils. Lee collected twenty-five articles in the book, categorising them under five sections: definition, origin, art clubs, artist, and personal account. The authors featured in the book include Lui Shou Kwan and Liu Guosong, their students and Lee himself, but also other scholars, critics, and two former chief curators at the Hong Kong Museum of Art who were familiar with the development of Hong Kong art, Laurence Tam Chi Shing and Christina Chu. There are two appendixes at the end of the book—a timeline that charts the development of Hong Kong modern ink painting, and a detailed list of reference materials. The book explores the development of the art form in the second half of the twentieth century and provides a broad framework of analysis. Lee also cites postcolonial theory in his discussion of Hong Kong’s complicated cultural identity, highlighting the unique “space” that the city’s ink painting movement occupies.


Man Kit Wah, Hong Kong Visual Artists 1970-1980: Experiments and Shifts After the New Ink Movement, Hong Kong Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2018. [REF.MKW]

Image: Cover of <i>Hong Kong Visual Artists 1970-1980: Experiments and Shifts After the New Ink Movement</i>.
Image: Cover of Hong Kong Visual Artists 1970-1980: Experiments and Shifts After the New Ink Movement.

The book’s author Man Kit Wah has conducted in-depth research into the development of Hong Kong art after World War II, and written a long essay “Painting Theories in Hong Kong and Reflections on Cultural Identity (1940-1980).” The prologue of this book may be regarded as a partial variation of that essay, in which Man discusses the background and factors that contributed to the rise of the Hong Kong New Ink Art Movement in the 70s. She also introduces some important concepts behind Lui’s painting philosophy, such as “root” (which relates to the spiritual side of Chinese painting) and “suitability” (referring to personal choices and considerations) and so on. The book collected six interviews with local artists conducted by the author; all the interviewees started working in visual arts and education in the 1970s. They are: Kan Tai Keung (b. 1942), Leung Kui Ting (b. 1945), Aser But (1949–2019), Choi Yan Chi (b. 1949), Lui Chun Kwong (b. 1956), and Kong Kai Ming (b. 1932). The first four studied ink painting with Lui, and described their personal experience of Lui’s teaching and its contents and details, making this a rare, precious record; although the latter two are not directly related to the New Ink Painting Movement, their observations of the visual art scene in Hong Kong in the 70s and 80s are worth looking at.


In the final decade of Lui’s life, he tirelessly devised a comprehensive system for modern art education, and was devoted to re-animating the traditional art of Chinese painting which had been, in his opinion, on a decline. Lui hoped to revive the spirit of creativity in Chinese art, but also simultaneously paved the way for the creation of new ink painting works. Lui’s teaching gave rise to a new generation of young students who aspired to embark upon a journey of revolutionising Chinese painting alongside him. Over the next forty years or so, the local ink painting scene has seen a turnover of several different generations of new faces; ink painting artists who were Lui’s students continued to make works, and occupied an important position in the local art scene. Through the achievements of their students, who reminded the older generation of the days when they themselves were amateurs of the art form, the old masters left an indelible mark on the history of the New Ink Painting Movement, and a spirit that will continue to be passed on.


Eliza Lai is an independent art history researcher, and has taught Western art history, contemporary Chinese art history, and Hong Kong art history at the Hong Kong Art School, the Fine Arts Department at the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Department of Visual Studies at Lingnan University. Her research focuses on twentieth-century Chinese art and contemporary Hong Kong art.

This is a translation. The essay was originally written in Chinese and can be found here



LAI Meilin Eliza, 黎美蓮

Tue, 3 Nov 2020
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