CREATIVE PROJECT BY CHELSEA KIEW (’25)
Bevis and Ascopard Fight the Dragon of Cologne (Chinese Handscroll Painting Style)
An Interpretation of Bevis of Hampton
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
For my final project, I reimagined a scene from Bevis of Hampton — the scene where Bevis and Ascopard fight the dragon of Cologne — in the style of a Chinese handscroll painting. When I was reading Bevis of Hampton for the first time, I was struck by how similar it was to wuxia, a Chinese genre of heroic literature. Yonglin Huang notes that the concept of the hero wuxia is “probably unique to Chinese literature” due to the difficulty in translating 侠 (xia), which he describes as “a person adept in martial arts and given to chivalrous conduct” (141). Intriguingly, however, a close approximation for xia might, Huang notes, be the word “knight” (141). Both wuxia and medieval chivalric romance share similar thematic concerns, including upholding justice and helping the weak and poor (141). Yet, the relationship between these two genres of heroic literature and the political and intellectual elite of their time are very different. Unlike knights, who have intimate connections to political and religious authority, xia have historically been viewed disparagingly by the Chinese elite. Legal scholar Han Fei identified xia as one of the “Five Vermin” of the state that rulers should “wipe out”. Not to say that elite disapproval of the genre and its heroes are unfounded – wuxia heroes are often highly opposed to feudal government and centralized monarchy (Huang), and the genre has had a close relationship with Chinese revolutionary sentiments and politics.
I was inspired by the similarities and differences between these two literary forms – one Chinese, and one English. From there, I wondered how this could then be re-imagined through visual art, and the idea was born.
The Chinese handscroll painting, just like literary form, has a fascinating relationship to temporality and narrativity. Duru Güngör shows how unlike European representational painting, Chinese handscroll painting places value on “deixis” (553) or the time element. An experience of time when studying a Chinese handscroll painting occurs along two lines. The first, of course, is the perception of the subject that is being represented. The second, much more interestingly, is the perception of the traces “of the artist’s hand moving over the painting’s surface at the time of its creation” (554). In some schools of European art, the brushwork is meant to be hidden (and correspondingly, the artist and their artistic process is effaced) in order for the painting to perfectly mimic and represent a “full illusion of three-dimensional reality” (553). In Chinese painting however, the viewer’s awareness of the artist’s subjectivities is emphasised as part of the contemplative experience. I believe in this way, there is great similarity between Chinese handscroll painting and literary narratives with the sort of distinct narrative voice that is present in Bevis of Hampton.
Considering that time is an essential aspect in the perception of Chinese handscroll painting, I was very deliberate in the placement of the figures in my piece. The dragon is placed left, making it the immediate focus of attention. From there, we have (left to right) Bevis, Ascopard, Saber Florentine, and Josian. Yet, I tried to ensure that even as the eye moved from left to right, that the dragon would not be forgotten through the clouds (xiangyun) coming from its mouth, which remind viewers of its overwhelming presence and reach.
The piece ending with Josian on the far right was also a deliberate choice. While her figure was made slightly smaller to focus attention on the central conflict between the dragon and Bevis and Ascopard, I hoped that the eye of the viewer would come back to her upon noticing a small detail: Josian is holding a sword.
The human figures (and Ascopard) come from a series titled One hundred portraits of Peking opera characters, in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had a couple choices for who I would cast as Josian (some of my options below). The first image emphasises the figure’s beauty and wealth as seen through her opulent clothes and headdress, but it also (quite charmingly) presents a confident and playful woman as she waves some kind of stick, perhaps a pipe for smoking. The text beside the character reads “王大娘” or literally “Big Woman Wang”. This is a (probably married) woman who holds much authority both within and outside her household. The second image presents another well-dressedwoman, but unlike Wang, whose clothes are striking, and whose body language is open, 张桂兰 “Zhang Guilan” is dressed in pastels and her body language is shy, retreating, and coy. This is probably an unmarried, younger woman. And finally, we have the portrait that I casted as Josian. It is still a well-dressed woman, but she does not appear to be as wealthy as the first two. Her expression is relaxed but she is watching attentively, and she is very casually holding a sword, the way she is hugging it to her body suggesting familiarity and ease. Intriguingly, the text beside her name means 化身 (“Hua Shen”) which means “Incarnation”.
To be very honest, I did not know what to make of this woman, and even more so her name. While all three figures would have added to Josian’s character, I felt that Hua Shen had a special energy – a serenity and intelligence – that could do the most to communicate who Josian was to me. As she looks at Bevis fighting the dragon, this Josian looks almost as if she is ready to step in at any moment. I hoped that through this, I could further highlight Josian’s incredible capacities for action (especially violence), a capacity she unfortunately has to often tone down for the sake of her husband’s pride.
As a side note, I am not at all familiar with Peking opera, its stories, and its characters, and chose these figures based on their appearance. If I were more familiar, I believe this would have been more meaningful.
The dragon is the azure dragon as it is presented on the flag of the Qing dynasty. Thus, this particular dragon has connections with royalty, and (depending on who you ask) despotism. I felt like this fitted nicely with the Cologne dragon in Bevis of Hampton, who used to be a king that brought great destruction and instability to his land (Lines 2610-2625). Considering the cultural significance of heraldry in the English context, I thought it would be quite nice to use a figure from a flag. By a happy coincidence, this Qing dragon also looked quite similar to the lions on the coat of arms of King Edward I, the monarch at the time that Bevis of Hampton was created. Both have elongated bodily figures with outstretched paws and open mouths.
A small note on the figure I chose for Bevis. As mentioned, I began this project inspired by both wuxia and Chinese handscroll painting. If this was a wuxia text, the hero fighting the despotic Qing dragon would be an underdog. Keeping in mind the position of knights in medieval culture, however, the Bevis fighting this dragon is quite clearly an important aristocrat, perhaps even a member of the royal family, considering the yellow attire and the dragon designs embroidered on it. The figure’s name is given as 劉封, Liu Feng. The Liu surname is, of course, the name of the Han dynasty emperors, and Liu Feng existed historically. To not get too deep into historical details – this Bevis is, like the original Bevis, an important person.
Finally, Chinese handscroll paintings usually have some text to accompany the image. The text at the right side of mine is from Journey to the West, a Chinese epic with the protagonist’s journey being key to the text, just like Bevis of Hampton.
“Eight Views of Xiaoxiang.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Feb. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight_Views_of_Xiaoxiang.
“Flag of the Qing Dynasty.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Apr. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_the_Qing_dynasty.
Güngör, Duru. “Breath, Motion and Time: Narrative Techniques in Representational Chinese Handscroll Painting.” Folklor/Edebiyat, vol. 25, no. 99, 2019, pp. 553–566.
Han, Fei. “The Five Vermin.” Han Feizi: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, pp. 97–118.
Huang, Yonglin. “Martial Arts Fiction and Chivalric Literature.” Narrative of Chinese and Western Popular Fiction: Comparison and Interpretation, Springer, Wuhan, 2019, pp. 141–161.
“Journey to the West.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_to_the_West.
“Liu Feng.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Mar. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liu_Feng.
“Seal (East Asia).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_(East_Asia).
Teo, Stephen. “Wuxia From Literature to Cinema.” Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2016, pp. 17–37.