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Feng Baili



‘As soon as you catch sight of your mind, you behold the Buddhahood;
How do you know if I know about fish pleasure or not?’
Inscription and signature: Feng Baili in the autumn of the year of 'dinghai' [1947].

The first line of the couplet refers to the Mahayana Buddhist idea that every ordinary being can reach enlightenment and become Buddha. A foolish passing thought makes one an ordinary man, while an enlightened second thought that frees one from attachments makes one a Buddha. The second line of the couplet alludes to a story recounted in Zhuangzi by the 4th century BCE philosopher of the same name. When he and his friend Huizi saw fish swimming placidly near the surface of the water, Zhangzi says: ‘That must be their pleasure’. Huizi asked: ‘You are not a fish, how do you know if it is pleasure or not?’ Zhuangzi replied: ‘You are not me. How do you know if I know about their pleasure or not?’ The story implies that it is sometimes possible to notice beautiful things even without reason, or that only those who understand can understand.

Feng Baili (style name Shaobo) was a native Panyu (in present-day Guangzhou). In his early years, he followed Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the Chinese revolutionary, and joined the revolutionary league Tongmenghui. When the Qing dynasty was overthrown and the Chinese republic was established, he served a presidential adviser in 1918. He was once the chief editor of 'Tiansheng Daily', a newspaper established in 1918 at Guangzhou. He also served as principal of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial School in the same city during 1946-47.

In the hands of many calligraphers, the cursive script was exploited for its expressive, aesthetic potential. Often it was the vehicle in which a calligrapher could express his individuality. The calligraphers’ desire to reflect their emotions in their writing is epitomised by the couplet. The abbreviated characters and the carefree disposition of the brushwork are suited perfectly to the ease and calm sentiment they express.

‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.124.
© 2005 Art Gallery of New South Wales

The couplet, written on two narrow pieces of paper or silk, and hung either side of a large painting or doorway, is one of the most common forms of calligraphic art and has a long standing history in China. They first appeared in the Five Dynasties period (907-979) as pairs of plaques, carved after written master copies, to decorate architectural columns, courtyards and garden doorways. Couplets for indoor display, written on paper or silk, came into existence in the 17th century and gained great popularity in the Qing dynasty. The couplets themselves are either taken from classical poetry or contemporary literary works composed by the calligraphers themselves and their friends. A couplet is made up of two parts called the head and the tail. The two lines of verse are antithetically parallel. Formerly it was a very common practice to send them to friends or relations on such occasions as marriages and birthdays, or as condolences to families of deceased persons.

Asian Art Department, AGNSW, August 2003.


Place where the work was made




Media category


Materials used

pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper


a - right scroll; 132.9 x 32.5 cm; image

a - right scroll; 154.5 x 39.8 cm; scroll

b - left scroll; 132.9 x 32.5 cm; image

b - left scroll; 154.5 x 39.8 cm; scroll

Signature & date

Signed c.l. part b, in Chinese, inscribed in black ink "Feng Baili in the autumn of the year of dinghai (1947)".
Signed l.l. part b, in Chinese, stamped in red ink “Baili [artist's seal]".


Gift of Dr. James Hayes 2003


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Feng Baili

Works in the collection



Where the work was made

Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

Referenced in 1 publication


LIU Yang, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 124, 125 (illus.). 39