painting

Have you heard of these animal spirits?

Fennec Fox – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 40cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

In the oriental belief, everything in the world can be sentient, animals, flowers, trees, even rocks! You may have heard of the story of the Monkey King, he was born right out of a piece of rock that had been blessed over the thousands of the years by the sunlight, the moonlight, the air, and all the amazing essences of the various elements in the world. The moment he was born, the Monkey King’s eyes shot golden rays all the way into the heavens. The Jade Emperor was astonished, but was greatly relieved when he saw that the golden rays disappeared after monkey ate human food and drank human water.

This of course was the origin story of one of the most popular super heroes in the Eastern world. However, in the civilian world, there are more of such animal spirits that are part of the traditional belief system. Different from the birth of the Monkey King though, the most recognised five animal spirits achieved immortality via practice, during the thousands of years of hard work, they found the way, the Tao, and became immortal. They are the fox spirit, the weasel spirit, the hedgehog spirit, the snake spirit, and the rat spirit. These animal spirits are neither demons nor angels, their attitude towards human depends largely on how they have been treated. All these animal spirits could conjure human shapes, and they are very powerful. Therefore in the ordinary lives, people tend to treat these animals with great respect, so that they could enjoy the protection or at least not be harmed by them. Let us take a look at each individually.

Fox Spirit

The fox spirit is probably the most well known of the five, and the story was more popular in Japan. Since the Tang Dynasty, the fantasy stories of fox spirits have been rather wide spread, and the fox spirits often appeared as beautiful women, who usually were believed to seduce young men. However, many of the fox spirits who took female shape also fell in love, and they remained loyal to their family and devoted completely to their loved ones, and were seen as the most virtuous non-human human.

Among the various stories of the fox spirit that has been in circulation for over 1000 years in China, there was one about a “nine-tailed fox”. This was a special fox, who gained one tail every 100 years of painstaking practice, eventually receiving the most lives represented by nine tails. “9” is the heavenly number, it is also seen as the biggest number. The countries around China also have tales of the fox spirits, such as in Japan, foxes are worshipped, because they are considered the protecters of rice and crops. There are quite a few various fox spirits in Japan, some good and some bad as well. Korea and Vietnam also has similar stories involving the fox spirits.

Weasel Spirit

The weasel spirit is linked with people’s mental world according to the common belief. The people who have offended the weasel spirit would experience a malady similar to epilepsy in the physical form but would cry, mumble or sing insanely too. They would not recognise their family or friends, and there is no real cure.

Hedgehog Spirit

The hedgehog spirit is recognised to have healing powers, but it can also be harmful if offended. There are temples for them too, just like temples for any other animal spirits in this list, but the hedgehog spirit does not require complicated rituals, as long as the house owners remember to always present her with steamed buns or meat, they are satisfied. I say “her” because this spirit is often associated with the image of an older lady, who is quite often seen as a witch.

Snake Spirit

The snake spirit is ancient, and the snakes also became the models that lead to the creation of dragons. People believe that snakes are sensitive animals, they have special shapes, and they are more powerful than the fox spirits. There are many folktales involving snake spirits, and I believe that the oriental culture is rather favourable towards them instead of the neutral attitude towards the other animal spirits. One of the supporting examples would be that the two ancient ancestors who have created the world according to the oriental mythology are half human, half snake.

Rat Spirit

Finally we have the rat spirit. Rats have always been considered smart animals, they have the ability to move in the dark, making them more mysterious, and some even believed that they could predict the future, and increase the wealth.

The Chinese names of each of the animal spirits mostly are based on their colour, such as yellow spirit, white spirit and grey spirit, referring to weasel, hedgehog and rat respectively. The fox spirit uses the word fox, but the snake spirit calls it willow, as in the willow tree, perhaps because of the shape of a snake. The worship towards these spirits are no longer in practice in the general sense, but as a tradition that existed, I think it is worth mentioning.

What do you think of such folk belief though? I find it generally beautiful because the people who created them were genuine and fair – they tried to do the right things so that they could expect the right rewards. Also, there was no prejudice towards any animals, flower or plants, everything in the world had a chance to become something more if they worked hard. It reminds me of what chief Seattle once said “All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!



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White wolf, an auspicious animal

White Wolf – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 50cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

Today in our live stream we focused on the wolf freehand brush painting. This was the first attempt from me, and even though the painting is not mounted yet, which makes it much flatter and more suitable for photographs, I believe this freehand wolf turned out quite alright! This is a painting of a white wolf, or arctic wolf, a subspecies of the grey wolf that lives in the high arctic tundra in North America. Such white animals in the ancient oriental culture are symbols of fortune, they are considered auspicious signs.

close up photo of white wolf in the forest

“A man might befriend a wolf, even break a wolf, but no man could truly tame a wolf.”

– George R. R. Martin

In fact, there are quite a few auspicious signs in the oriental culture, and there are five levels of them: the five spirits, the grand auspicious sign, the high auspicious sign, the medium auspicious sign, and the low auspicious sign. These names are easier in Chinese, two characters describing each level (五灵、大瑞、上瑞、中瑞、下瑞). Our white wolf belongs to the third level, it is a high auspicious sign.

The five spirits include Qilin, Phoenix, Turtle, Dragon, and White Tiger (some say Pi Xiu, a bear-tiger physical shape).

The Qilin is a mystical creature, known to have the head of goat, body of a deer, feet of a wolf, with scales, antlers, and the tail resembling a dragon. It is around two meters tall, lives about 2000 years, and is often associated with the bringer of children. A Qinlin is benevolent, gentle creature, but it can be rather scary when angry, and only the very virtuous people can be compared to a Qilin.

The other four auspicious signs in this level are also the four winds, the protectors of the Norther, Southern, Western and Eastern heavens.

QinLin 麒麟

The second level involves mostly natural phenomenon, especially four virtuous stars and fortunate clouds. But the natural phenomenon also includes timely snow fall, timely rain, sunlight, moonlight, northern light, frost, solar and lunar eclipses, springs, calm ocean, ancient trees blooming etc. Some emperors take such natural occurrences as a sign of blessing and recognition from the heavens. Other emperors use such signs to reinforce their status as a ruler, after all, the people generally are very impressed by these unexplainable signs!

The next level includes many white animals, and the white wolf is high on the list of being an auspicious sign, because they can only been seen by the people ruled by the most benevolent and kind emperor. On this list there is also the white deer, white fox, white bear, white ape, and white and RED rabbit – I do not suppose there were many records of it.

The second to last level includes birds. Eagle, red wild goose, white swallow, white chicken, and many more are on this list. The final level involve all kinds of plants and stones.

Auspicious Cranes

Song Dynasty, Zhao Ji, Liaoning Museum

This painting was created by the last emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty. Story has it that on the 16th day after the Spring Festival of 1112, a large flock of cranes came lingering around the palace, it was a magnificent and extremely auspicious sight. The emperor Zhao Ji, who was also a wonderful artist, excitedly recorded this image in the form of a detailed painting and complimented it with a poetry.

Artistically this painting is truly elegant, unfortunately for the nation however, merely 15 years after the creation of this painting the nation was lost to the Jin invasion, Zhao Ji (Song Hui Zong) became the very last emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty. This painting was also lost during the war and chaos. 600 years later it turned up magically – I cannot imagine what it must have been through, but auspicious signs and all their blessings presented us with an emperor who was a much better artist in the end.

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!



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A Zebra in Me

Zebra – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 40cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

The zebras are funny creatures, they look like horses and run like horses, but they are far from being horses. They have these pretty stripes that distinguish them from many other animals, and they have this notorious temper that renders them impossible to keep close. I cannot imagine the very first time the zebras were introduced to the metropolitan world, they must have caused such a sensation! They inevitably became the icon of the fashion world, and their skin pattern was taken to be used as such too. To me, however, I find myself relating to zebras on many levels, the disguise, the temper and perhaps more.

In the early days, people found the domesticated horses wonderful animals – they can carry heavy loads, run hundreds of miles, and even fight bravely bearing people on their backs – zebras must be useful in similar ways too, they thought. How wrong were these people! After hard work around zebras, people realised that these animals may obey orders in closed up environments, but as soon as they leave this particular space, they no longer listen. The domestication process of zebras had occasional success, but these nervous creatures that jump at the slightest noise gave people too much headache to be worth the trouble. Study say that the zebras enjoy living in a group, and that is indeed what we see the most, zebra after zebra moving together, we cannot tell where one starts where one ends, because of the too many blinding stripes they have. But after careful analysis, experts point out that these creatures also are rather independent, even though they live in a close group environment. The group would then be chaotic once one startles, causing panic amongst all. So, point is, the zebras are too wild to be domesticated, they are too unpredictable.

zebra on grassland grayscale photography

“I asked the Zebra, ‘Are you black with white stripes? Or white with black stripes?’ And the zebra asked me, ‘Are you good with bad habits? Or are you bad with good habits?’”

– Shel Silverstein

I have often thought about myself when studying animal behaviour – am I much different? I believe one of my deepest desires is to be free, be wild, follow my heart and create my own dreams. I also must place myself in the social environment, try to blend in, make my own stripes blindingly invisible in certain situations for better self-protection. But I know myself, my stripes will not only serve as “blinding” mechanism, these beautiful patterns shall also make me stand out, as they are unique, just like me.

The truth is, from the perspective of another species, I may only be just a zebra with zebra stripes – who hasn’t gotten these? During the streaming of this painting, one question was raised about self-acceptance. I find it a question of such significance that renders me speechless. In retrospect however, I think we can see this question in a different light, even though some of us have noticeable defects on our faces, undermining our confidence and self-esteem, making us too self-conscious to behave normally, we shall still see the fact that we are all but zebras with very similar looking stripes, the so-called differences that we care about so much may not matter to anyone else. I personally believe that sometimes not considering ourselves anything special may also solve some of our self-acceptance issues, perhaps it works better than the other way around. Accept that you and I are just zebras, be silly and be happy.


Enjoy such discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!



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Wisdom & Suffering of a Cheetah

Cheetah – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 40cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

The fastest land animal, what a cheetah had to trade for such glory? To understand this, I believe the Chinese has an ancient word, “舍得” (shě de), which can be very useful in analysing a cheetah. Let me attempt to explain the meaning of this word first – this may be a rather difficult task. This is a word filled with philosophical wisdom, the meaning is multifold, it can mean to give up something, be willing to part with or make a trade-off with someone or something. I am certainly unsatisfied with such an explanation, so let’s break it down to take a closer look.

“舍” means to let go of, be charitable; “得” refers to a gain, an acquisition. This word is composed of these opposing concepts in this order, which is exactly where the philosophy lies – only pain leads to gain, no pain no gain, big pain has big gain and small pain leads to small gain. This is a life wisdom. This word teaches us to take an objective stance when treating the people and events around us, weigh the matters by heart, see the actual value of importance in our lives. For instance, when faced with robbery, would our 20 dollars mean more than our lives? Would the spilling of harmful words be worthwhile towards our loved ones in an heated argument? Would we regret not telling them words of love instead in retrospect? Should I get over my laziness and finish my meaningful project right now, even though I am happy and satisfied as it is? Such decisions are everywhere, confronting us everyday. All these emotions and the weighing between the loss and the gain, the generosity and stinginess, the good and the bad, the to do and not to do, everything altogether is included in the concept of “舍得”. It is an art, harmony is achieved in the delicate balancing of each pain and each gain. Today, let us look at the cheetah’s pains and gains.

cheetah on rock

“Have the will of a tiger, the speed of a cheetah, and the heart of a lion.”

– Kevin McCarty

The cheetah is a machine made for speed. A cheetah has enlarged nasal cavity, letting in more oxygen during high-speed chases; Its lung and heart are connected with the circulatory system and are equipped with strong artery and adrenal glands, allowing for efficient transmission of oxygen via blood circulation. The cheetah has a long spine and legs, paired with a streamlined body, it is quite light weight; Its spine is springy, allowing for the maximised acceleration; Its claws not retractable, acting like spiked shoes in a race, can firmly grab the ground during the run; It has a long and fluffy tail, maintaining the body balance in sharp turns; Without the restriction of the collarbones, its shoulder blades can gain the most optimised action space, wonderful for running.

But all these advantages at what cost? The enlarged nasal cavity squeezed away the mouth space, leading to smaller teeth than those of other large cats. This can be a big disadvantage in any fights; The circulation system can only sustain the cheetah to run at a speed of over 100 km/h for 3-5 minutes, anything beyond may lead to death from overheat. After each chase, a cheetah has to take 10 minutes to recover, and during which time, it is at an extremely vulnerable state – unable to guard its newly acquired food, and unable to defend itself. It cannot even take the food up in a tree for safe keeping, because the claws are too short and blunt to allow much climbing; Its lack of collarbone also renders a cheetah weak in physical combat.

In summary, strength and weakness come hand in hand in this graceful fragile yet mighty creature. The “舍” and the “得” has such clear demonstration in the cheetah. Is it worthwhile? I cannot say, but if I were to choose as a cheetah, I may very well make the same decisions.

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!



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Lions in the Oriental Art

Lion – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 40cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

The Asian lions are mostly from India, so for the most of Chinese people, they are exotic and mystical. They are also representatives of bravery and power, so just like tigers, the lions are also depicted and their images are wide spread, ranging from buildings to statues and paintings. The meaning of the lion image also shares the auspicious blessing, just like that of a tiger.

For those who are familiar with the Chinese lion paintings, it may be quite apparent that the artists may never have seen lions in reality. For a long time in the Chinese artistic creation of lions, the most typical lion are seated, their heads large and very round, large mouths, giant eyes and the mane somewhat curly. So even though this look is quite removed from their original appearance, this style of lion creation remained quite stable in China that lasted hundreds of years.

wildlife photography of brown lion

“Always be fearless. Walk like lion, talk like pigeons, live like elephants and love like an infant child.”

When lions were first brought into China via the silk road over 2,000 years ago, these creatures quickly aroused the affection from the emperors of the Han Dynasty. The early craftsman created animals that resembled the actual lions well, leading the historians to believe that some craftsman may have actually seen lions before. Paintings of lion were also close to the realistic look of a lion until at least Tang Dynasty, because the lion paintings that are found in tombs from Tang Dynasty showcases detailed and quite realistic lions. During the long duration of the Chinese social development however, it became more clear that the artists who have witnessed a lion is few in number, one very apparent example would be the stone lions that are created to protecting certain homes.

bird people art street

Stone Lion Statue

The vast majority of such guardians are made to shield the home owner from demons or bad luck, and the vast majority of the artists who crafted them have no idea how the lions appear, they only learn from their masters. They are more puppy like in my opinion, not exactly lion looking in fact.

Lion Plate

Tang Dynasty, Chinese National Museum

This artistic plate provides a great example of the lion art in the traditional oriental art world. The shape of the body, the atmosphere, the precision in the muscle lines, and every single body part all indicate the hight of the lion art creation of the ancient oriental world.

Later in the Chinese lion painting field the creation seemed to have stagnated, and the quality of the paintings vary drastically. However, in general, the Ming Dynasty was a relatively prosperous period and for a long while the international trade via the ocean brought in exotic animals again, including the lions, until the full closure of the boarders by sea.

Lion Painting

Zhou Quan, Ming Dynasty, Tokyo National Museum

This piece is a decent description of the lion from the Ming Dynasty works of art. The rather faithful depiction of the animal remains scarce in the traditional Oriental artworks.

Since the Ming Dynasty however, the last empirical time Qing Dynasty only received a lion once, which passed away after merely 3 months. This lead to a decline in the construction of the lion shape until the 1900s.

Lion Painting

Zhang Wei Bang, Qing Dynasty, Taipei Forbidden City Museum

Compared with the above Ming production, this lion created in the Qing Dynasty lack accuracy in too many aspects. This may be due to the artistic skills of the painting, but it is not fair to conclude based on this single factor. The society most likely lacked the live samples from which an artist can study.

The lion art in summary, went through an interesting path in China, basically starting realistic, continuing with creative innovation, and then back to relatively faithful depiction again. Even in the stone statue making, there are 2 main types, the traditional big headed ones and the rather accurate ones, especially in the cities where there is more international interaction.

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!



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How to Ink an Elephant

Elephant – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 50cm x 50cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

Elephants are smart creatures that are socially adapted, even though some believe that they are huge and scary. These intelligent beings are indeed the largest land animals, but they also display human traits that put some human to shame. These creatures have been through millions of years of evolution before looking like the way they do today. These creatures are not exactly the most popular subjects in the Oriental Brush Art world, but today let’s attempt to combine the ink and water with these magnificent beings!

wildlife photography of elephant during golden hour

“If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people only more so.”

– Peter Corneille

1. Preparation

The materials involved are simple, there will mainly be:

  • ink
  • oriental paint brush
  • rice paper

The ink can be liquid or blocks, but note that the quality of either makes a difference in the final result! I will use raw rice paper for the creation of this piece, because I want the automatic ink bleed effect to appear in places.

Need art supplies? Get help here.

2. Design

Normally the design phase takes the longest in any painting process, however, for an elephant painting, I believe there are several possible considerations: the type that shows their magnificence, which usually features one elephant; the motherly love that involve both an adult and a baby elephant; the herd of elephants, which obviously will have many individuals. For this piece, I would like to pull focus on only one elephant, with simple yet meaningful background.

We also have to know about our subjects before painting, such as in the elephant world, there are African or Asian species that have quite some distinctive differences. This part I will leave for you to find out – not going to take all the fun from you – but for mine, I would like to paint an African elephant.

To recap, the design will be simple, only one elephant and simple background.

The draft process normally takes place in my head, but I am adding it for you to understand!

Now with our digital painting possibilities, it is also a great idea to use the digital means for the conception process.

3. Painting

The painting process after all the discussion above, is a very enjoyable experience. Because you are familiar with your materials, you also have a plan, now, you only need to realise that plan! The thing I love about the oriental brush painting using ink is its flexibility. In the painting process, my brain is still active, reconstructing the image according to the plan, and my advice is not to dismiss the sparks during the painting time! There may be moments that crazy ideas jump into your head, and these ideas during the creation process may very well be your most valuable inspiration – channel it if possible, and use it well. Not all shall be taken in, but the point is to stay flexible enjoy during the actual creation process.

Be bold in the brush lines, but be cautious in details!



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