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Bapo, the eight broken

Bapo painting, detail

Bapo painting, detail.

Bapo ("eight brokens") painting is an artistic genre that emerged in China during the mid-19th century. Bapo was focused mainly on the written word referring as it did to the damaged cultural ephemera hyper-realistically depicting worm-eaten calligraphies, partial book pages, burned paintings, remnants of rubbings and torn-open letters and other items associated with scholarly pursuits.

The term "eight brokens" also alludes to the hidden wishes for good fortune. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, and broken, or less-than-complete, objects can also have favorable implications, since perfection could bring about misfortune.

Bapo painting is characterized by a meticulous attention to detail and a realistic representation of the objects. The broken objects are arranged in a visually pleasing manner and often surrounded by other elements like flowers, plants, and insects.

Bapo paintings often reflect a sense of mourning for the past, but they can also contain humor and hidden messages. The genre has been revived by contemporary Chinese artists, who incorporate modern materials and themes into their works. Bapo paintings also served as a form of social commentary during tumultuous times in Chinese history, with artists subtly referencing past calamities to comment on their present circumstances.

The art form was largely forgotten after 1949 but has recently been rediscovered by contemporary artists and collectors. The genre has been compared to European and American trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) paintings due to its hyper-realistic depiction of objects.

In comparison, while Bapo and trompe l’oeil paintings share a focus on hyper-realistic depiction of objects, they differ significantly in their cultural context, symbolism, and purpose. Bapo is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and history, often carrying hidden messages and serving as a form of social commentary, while trompe l’oeil is primarily a visual technique used for its optical illusion effect.

The Bapo style is related to a complex tradition of imitating one material in another. This practice includes imitating bronze objects in lead-glazed pottery during the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), ivory in Blanc-de-chine porcelain at the end of the Ming dynasty, and bronze objects, faux-bois and precious stones among other material imitated in porcelain, in particular during the Kangxi, Yongzheng and throughout the Qianlong periods.

The Bapo style is however more than material imitation in that, that it also incorporates the aspect of central perspective as in adding an illusion of depth and three dimensionality to the depicted objects.

The technique of linear perspective was first introduced to the East through Portuguese sea-routes by Jesuit missionaries for their scientific and liturgical teachings. The West met the East in art with the introduction of central perspective to the imperial court in Beijing by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). Castiglione, who worked as an architect on the Baroque section of the Yuan Ming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Clarity), a part of the vast Summer Palace north of Beijing, served the Chinese emperors of the Qing dynasty. He also tutored the Chinese translations (1729 and 1735) of Andrea Pozzo's (1642-1709) Treatises On Architecture.

Chinese artists court were reportedly more intrigued than impressed by the lifelike representations of Western artists, feeling that they lacked scholarly depth.

While reflecting on the interactions between Eastern and Western art it is difficult to ignore the parallels between the awakening interest in porcelain decorations of the Kangxi period, at the mid 19th century into the first decades of the 20th century, known as the "Kangxi revival", and the emergence of the hyper-realistic depiction of various objects and materials, known as "Bapo", and heavily depending on the linear perspective introduced to the Kangxi court by Giuseppe Castiglione.

A good reference is "The 8 Brokens – Chinese Bapo Painting" by Nancy Berliner, provides a comprehensive exploration of this unique style, its historical context, and notable artists associated with it.