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A Steward of Chinese Artistry

Immersed in antique Chinese paintings for decades, Tony Dai has amassed not just an enviable art collection, but also a profound understanding of his cultural heritage

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Tony Dai, an art collector, scholar, and antique dealer, hails from a lineage of esteemed collectors in Shanghai that began during the Qing Dynasty. Raised in an environment steeped in traditional Chinese art and culture, his childhood was filled with echoes of their tales. Across four generations, this passion for paintings has coursed through Dai’s veins, shaping his destiny as a dedicated custodian of Chinese antiquity.

His journey into the world of fine art began at age six when he began to study traditional Chinese calligraphy. Two years later, he received a notable second-place win in a national children’s calligraphy competition. Despite his artistic talent, when faced with a choice between becoming an artist or an art collector, Dai unequivocally embraced the path of an art collector. Reflecting on his first acquisition at the age of 12 (from his allowance money), Dai acknowledges its sentimental value: “While not a lucrative investment, the painting held a personal allure,” he says.

Encouraged by his family, the young man’s formative years were dedicated to the study and appraisal of antiques and paintings. Dai quickly garnered the attention of Shanghai’s art collectors, attracting mentors eager to impart wisdom and showcase rare treasures to him. Filled with such valuable insights, 19-year-old Dai staged his first exhibition in Australia, presenting a curated assembly of renowned Ming and Qing Dynasty artworks alongside 20th-century masterpieces.

Over the years, Dai’s personal collection has grown in value, and so has his expertise and passion for traditional Chinese artwork. In this article, he graciously imparts his expertise in the art of traditional Chinese painting.

A copy of Gu Kaizhi’s work The Nymph of the Luo River from the Song Dynasty. The painting employs rich imagination and sophisticated techniques, creating a composition in which reality and illusion intertwine.

Spiritual resonance

Through studying the works of great artists such as the famous Four Monks of the Qing Dynasty and calligraphy virtuoso Wang Xizhi, Dai realized that these works were not just feats of artistry but also a reflection of the inner spirit of their creators. Seeking his spiritual improvement through the meditation practice Falun Dafa, Dai has grown in wisdom and deepened his artistic understanding. “Through my cultivation, I find myself more attuned to the spiritual essence that those master painters sought to convey thousands of years ago,” he says.

One of the artists Dai reveres is Xie He, an important figure in 6th-century Chinese art history, who penned The Record of the Classification of Old Painters. This pivotal work identified six foundational principles of Chinese painting: spirit resonance (or the energy transmitted by the work), the use of the brush, faithful resemblance to the object, specific colouration, composition and planning, and learning from old masters. For He, the spirit resonance represented the most important aspect of artistic excellence.

“To achieve seamless continuity in a painting, a deep mastery of fundamentals is crucial,” Dai says. “The artist must authentically capture the subject’s essence—its ‘spirit resonance’—by deftly wielding the brush and ink to recreate its vivid reality.”

It’s this spirit resonance that breathes life into a painting, enabling it to manifest the subject’s inner spirit through its physical form. This quality serves as a marker distinguishing genuine works from forgeries. “When assessing a painting’s authenticity, the absence of spirit is often a decisive factor. In forged paintings, the spirit lacks coherence, depriving the piece of vitality,” Dai says.

A partial view of Mi Youren’s painting Cloudy Mountains, Southern Song Dynasty. The painting adopts the typical technique of the “Mi Family Landscape,” where the mountain slopes are first lightly shaded with ink, and then varying-sized horizontal ink dots are repeatedly applied to depict mountain peaks and ridges. In Mi’s painting, this technique captures the lush and misty scenery of Jiangnan.

The beauty of nothingness

A distinct feature of traditional Chinese paintings is the deliberate use of vast negative space. The concept of liubai, “leaving blank space,” represents an artful use of negative space, a technique that not only enriches the work’s overall ambiance but also establishes a delicate equilibrium with the filled spaces. Liubai finds its origins in the Taoist philosophy, which reveres emptiness and non-action. As Lao Tzu writes in Tao Te Ching, “All things under Heaven are born from what exists, and what exists is born from emptiness.”

Fishing Alone on the Cold River, Ma Yuan, Southern Song Dynasty. This piece is an excellent example of the “blank space” aesthetic in Chinese ink painting. The extensive use of blank spaces around the boat depicts the vast and misty river, offering readers scope for imagination

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), a period known for its pursuit of simplicity and elegance in art, liubai gained prominence and became artfully refined. According to Dai, the piece Angler on a Wintry Lake by Song Dynasty painter Ma Yuan is an exemplary use of the technique. “The painting draws inspiration from a Tang Dynasty verse: ‘In a lone boat, an old man in a straw rain hat and straw raincoat fishes upon the frigid river snow in solitude.’ Except for subtle lines hinting at ripples around the boat, the rest is left unadorned. However, it’s precisely this expansive emptiness that encapsulates the core of solitude and sparks boundless imagination within the vast atmosphere Ma aimed for,” Dai says.

According to him, mastery of the liubai technique necessitates wisdom and a tranquil attitude. In the hustle and bustle of modern life, Dai reminds us that it’s equally crucial to create moments of liubai for the weary soul—a period of emptiness to maintain purity, a respite from restlessness to achieve composure, and a release of tension to navigate life with ease.

Double Fish by Zhu Da. Zhu Da, also known as Bada Shanren, was one of the famous “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou.” Zhu expressed his frustration at the fall of the Ming Dynasty through flower and bird paintings. In this particular painting, his sentiments are reflected in the eyes of the two fish, both portrayed with a disdainful “white-eyed” expression.

Spiritual connection

Often termed as freehand brushwork, the concept of xieyi translates as “writing ideas,” and it’s a distinct genre within traditional Chinese painting. Addressing a common misconception, Dai says that while xieyi may advocate for loose precision in depicting landscapes and figures, it still demands immediate recognition of the subject. “[Ancient Chinese painter] Gu Kaizhi introduced the concept of ‘expression of spirit through form,’ which meant that the portrayal of a subject’s physical appearance should be a conduit to unveiling its inner essence and vitality,” Dai says.

Xieyi served as a means for ancient Chinese intellectuals to articulate their thoughts and aspirations. “Most ancient Chinese painters belonged to the literati class. They were not only adept artists but also accomplished poets, essayists, and politicians. Their paintings were visual representations of their intellect and spiritual realm,” Dai says.

“A xieyi painting should evoke a sense of mental tranquility and offer enlightenment. These are experiences distinct from abstract art, which exerts a strong visual impact,” Dai says.

Human and divine

Ancient Chinese culture often attributed healing properties to exceptional artworks. “A great painting isn’t just aesthetically pleasing. Its virtuous energy holds the potential to benefit viewers in profound ways,” Dai says.

Mountains, Streams and Autumn Trees by Wang Hui, Qing Dynasty. This famous painting depicts the enchanting scenery of autumn mountains. Interestingly, after painter Wang Shimin viewed this work, his long standing cough miraculously disappeared.

He tells a tale from Chinese history involving Wang Hui, a renowned landscape artist from the early Qing Dynasty. When Hui completed the piece Mountains, Streams, and Autumn Trees, his fellow painter Wang Shimin was so moved that he wanted to acquire it. While Hui refused his offer, Shimin dedicated a poem to the painting, mentioning the miraculous disappearance of a long-standing cough after he gazed at it.

This is in part related to the Taoist teaching of the “unity of Heaven and man,” which holds a vital place in Chinese culture. Everything—heaven, earth, and humanity—was seen as interconnected and part of a unified whole. This unity has profoundly influenced Chinese aesthetics, so much so that artists constantly sought equilibrium between nature and humanity, intertwining natural elements with human emotions and values. That’s why in traditional Chinese painting each stroke carries not just the essence of the subject but the soul of the artist.

In understanding this heritage, Dai emerges as a guiding light, navigating the intricate realm where art, spirituality, and cultural heritage converge. His exploration through the layers of ink and canvas reveals not only the sheer beauty of strokes but also the philosophies embedded within each masterpiece.

As Dai continues to champion the preservation of these invaluable treasures, he inspires an appreciation for the transcendent artistry that resonates through the ages, inviting us to glimpse the soul of ancient China and find connections that rise above borders and time itself.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 123

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