Haute RE Magazine

Ink that Makes You Think

Tsai Chih Chung: the Philosopher of the Cartoon

Master Zhuang plays a flute to some cute cats. Master Lie rides on a leaf while Sima Qian prefers to stay aloft on a history book. Elsewhere a plump cat imagines a plump fish.

In a recent exhibition at Vancouver’s Sunzen Gallery, curator Yubing Guo opened the door to the mythical universe of Tsai Chih Chung’s cartoon creations: Supreme Shanti. Great works of philosophy — the Buddha, Confucius, Sun Tzu — rub shoulders with birds and animals in colourful, contemporary ink wash drawings. 

At once magical and relatable, the artist’s recent work explains his longstanding popularity across Asia. Now Vancouver has crossed the threshold of Tsai’s imagination, it won’t be long until Canada understands that, in the hands of a master, cartoons can explain the deepest truths.

Making cartoons into masterpieces

Yubing Guo explained to Haute that the master of cartoons has a studio in Hangzhou, where he created his latest works in 2021.

We felt it would be a great opportunity to show Mr Tsai’s work here in Vancouver — his first exhibition in North America, even though he lived in Vancouver in the 1990s. The exhibition depicts historical figures, portraits from daily life, as well as illustrations of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.”

A fresh look for ancient authors

Tsai began creating cartoons for newspapers in Taiwan when he was a teenager — 60 years or more ago. Eventually, Tsai moved to the fast-paced, highly stylized Japanese manga market, returning to Taiwan and mainland China with a more mature, flowing style. Tsai’s current work has its roots in classical Chinese ink artwork, with influences from more popular Japanese and Western cartooning.

One of his great loves has always been the literature of the Chinese masters, leading to illustrated books which have sold over 50 million copies in over 40 countries. Tsai roots his narratives in history and teaching but allows the characters to enjoy more freedom in his drawings. In recent years, his ink art has begun to attract high prices at auction with its delicacy, fluidity, spirituality and simple joy for life. It seems that Tsai’s reputation will only grow.

The last word should go to Confucius: “Study the past if you would define the future.”

The Sunzen Gallery in Vancouver staged Tsai Chih Chung’s first-ever North American exhibition

Sunzen’s Qingdao location celebrates its 20th anniversary in November 2022, featuring modern and contemporary Chinese ink art with masterpieces by Chang Dai-chien, Fu Baoshi, Qi Baishi, and Huang Binhong. 


Cover Images: 

1. Gain a Decisive Victory a Thousand Miles Away 远筹帷幄决胜千里之外

2. Over a Thousand Hills, No Birds in Flight 千山鸟飞绝

3. Cat Yearning for Fish 云想衣裳猫想鱼

4. Bodhidharma in Sunyata 达摩入空境

5. Fourth Chan Patriarch Daoxin Playing the Qin 四祖道信弹琴图

6. Bodhidharma with Folded Hands 合掌达摩

© Tsai Chih Chung 

Photo credit: Sunzen Gallery