Shi Tao was a Chinese landscape painter and poet during the early part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Born in Quanzhou County in Guangxi province, Shi Tao was a member of the Ming royal house. He narrowly avoided catastrophe in 1644 when the Ming Dynasty fell to invading Manchurians and civil rebellion. Having escaped by chance from the fate to which his lineage would have assigned him, Shi Tao assumed the name Yuanji Shi Tao no later than 1651 when he became a Buddhist monk.
He moved from Wuchang, where he began his religious instruction, to Anhui in the 1660s. Throughout the 1680s he lived in Nanjing and Yangzhou, and in 1690 he moved to Beijing to find patronage for his promotion within the monastic system. Frustrated by his failure to find a patron, Shi Tao converted to Daoism in 1693 and returned to Yangzhou where he remained until his death in 1707.
Shi Tao used over two dozen courtesy names during his life.
Among the most commonly used names were Shi Tao (Stone Wave - 石涛), Ku Gua Heshang (Bitter Gourd Monk -苦瓜和尚), Yuan Ji (Origin of Salvation - 原濟), Xia Zun Zhe (Honorable Blind One - 瞎尊者, blind to worldly desires), Da Dizi (The Pure (or cleansed) One - 大滌子).
As a buddhist convert, he was also known with the monastic name Yuan Ji (原濟)
Da Dizi was taken when Shitao renounced his Buddhism and turned to Daoism. It was also the name he used for his home in Yangzhou (Da Di Hall - 大滌堂).
Shi Tao is one of the most famous individualist painters of the early Qing dynasty. The art he created was revolutionary in its transgressions of the rigidly codified techniques and styles that dictated what was considered beautiful. Imitation was valued over innovation, and although Shi Tao was clearly influenced by his predecessors (namely Ni Zan and Li Yong), his art breaks with theirs in several new and fascinating ways.
His formal innovations in depiction include drawing attention to the act of painting itself through his use of washes and bold, impressionistic brushstrokes, as well as an interest in subjective perspective and the use of negative or white space to suggest distance. Shi Tao's stylistic innovations are difficult to place in the context of the period. In a colophon dated 1686, Shi Tao wrote: "In painting, there are the Southern and the Northern schools, and in calligraphy, the methods of the Two Wangs (Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi). Zhang Rong (443–497) once remarked, 'I regret not that I do not share the Two Wangs' methods, but that the Two Wangs did not share my methods.' If someone asks whether I follow the Southern or the Northern School, or whether either school follows me, I hold my belly laughing and reply, 'I always use my own method!'"
The poetry and calligraphy that accompany his landscapes are just as beautiful, irreverent, and vivid as the paintings they complement. His paintings exemplify the internal contradictions and tensions of the literati or scholar-amateur artist, and they have been interpreted as an invective against art-historical canonization.
"10,000 Ugly Inkblots" is a perfect example of Shi Tao's subversive and ironic aesthetic principles. This uniquely apperceptive work challenges accepted standards of beauty. As the carefully painted landscape degenerates into Pollock-esque splatters, the viewer is forced to recognize that the painting is not transparent (immediate, in the most literal sense meaning without media) in the way it initially purports to be. Solely because they are labeled "ugly," the ink dots begin to take on a sort of abstract beauty.
"Reminiscences of Qin-Huai" is another of Shi Tao's unique paintings. Like many of the paintings from the late Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty it deals with man's place in nature. Upon a first viewing, however, the craggy peak in this painting seems somewhat distorted. What makes this painting so unique is that it appears to depict the mountain bowing. A monk stands placidly on a boat that floats along the Qin-Huai river, staring up in admiration at the genuflecting stone giant. The economy of respect that circulates between man and nature is explored here in a sophisticated style reminiscent of surrealism or magical realism, and bordering on the absurd. Shi Tao himself had visited the river and the surrounding region in the 1680s, but it is unknown whether the album that contains this painting depicts specific places. Re-presentation itself is the only way the feeling of mutual respect that Shi Tao depicts in this painting could be communicated; the subject of a personified mountain simply defies anything simpler.