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I have a set of what seems to be two Chinese paintings. The stamp seals on them are the same - indicating the same painter or previous owner for both of them If I've understood correctly - but the characters on the paintings are different and even seems to be of different style, with the characters on one of them being of lighter and slightly more cursive strokes.
I would very much like to find out what the characters mean and possibly also who the painter might be, but I'm lacking proficiency in the Chinese language and don't know where to start to decipher their meaning properly. The only thing I've been able to find out by myself is that one of the paintings seems to be depicting Zhong Kui, the vanquisher of ghosts. The other one depicts a painter (maybe a self-portrait).
Please find images pasted below, I appreciate all help with learning more about these paintings.

Both Paintings The two paintings next to each other.

Close up on the characters of the painting depicting the painter, these characters seems to be more cursive Close-up on the characters of the painting depicting the painter, these characters seems to be slightly more cursive, with lighter strokes.

Close-up of Zhong Kui painting Close-up on the characters of the Zhong Kui painting, seemingly more harder strokes.

Sealonpaintings Close-up of the seal stamps on one of the paintings, these seals are identical on both of the paintings.

Right corner seal Close-up on the seal stamp on the right bottom on one of the paintings, this one is also identical on both of the paintings.

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Seals:

虛靜恬淡: This is from 《莊子》, one of the most important taoist works. The original is 夫虛靜、恬淡、寂漠、無為者,天地之平而道德之至,故帝王聖人休焉。Ctext translates it as "Vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and non-action - this is the Level of heaven and earth, and the perfection of the Tao and its characteristics. Therefore the Dis, Kings, and Sages found in this their resting-place."

莊墨: Likely to be associated with 莊子 and 墨子. 墨子 is the founder of another philosophy school.

𨖁(原?): 𨖁 is a variant of 道, which is the Tao in Taoism. The second character could be 原. I'm pretty but not 100% sure since it's not in the form that I usually see. If it's the seal is indeed 道原, then it's the title of another Taoist work in 《黃帝四經》. I didn't find translations, but the original texts can be found at 《道原》

Either of the above two, or both, could be the 字 of the painter. 字 is the name that our elders give us when we become adults, either showing their expectations, or our characteristics and pursuits. They are usually related to our 名 (given name). Now that 字 are no longer used. Some intellectuals might give themselves a 字 to show their pursuits.

Either of the above two, or both, could also be the 號 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_name) of the painter. It's translated as art name at Wiki but not necessarily so. It's more like an alias, usually not related to 名.

Semi-cursive inscriptions 行書: title 鍾進士鬼趣圖, date 戊辰歲末寫. 鍾進士 is 鍾馗. 鍾 is his family name. 進士 was the highest and final degree in the imperial examination in Imperial China. 鍾馗 was a 進士 before he died. He became an immortal in the hell and is responsible for catching ghosts. Traditionally, calling people by names are very disrespectful. Many other callings are used to show respect, and one of them is family name plus job/title, as 鍾進士. 鬼 is ghost. 趣 is 趣味, something that is interesting. 圖 is painting. In Chinese paintings, x趣圖 is commonly seen, where the painting is about x which has interests, e.g. 鬼趣圖、童(kids)趣圖.

戊 is one of the ten Heavenly Stems (天干), 辰 is one of the twelve Earthly Branches (地支). They are used to record years and 60 years form a cycle. So 戊辰 is the year of 1988, 1928, 1868, etc. 歲 is year. 末 is end. The painting was painted at the end of the year of 戊辰. 寫 is write. It's short for the Chinese painting style/technique 寫意. The freehand brush work emphasizes the semblance in the spiritual aspect, not the physical form.

I can't read cursive inscriptions 草書 and can only identify several characters. But it's lucky this is actually a from the famous 懷素自敘帖 so that I was able to identify it only through several characters. 筆下唯看激電流,字成只畏盤龍走

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From the last character of the third (right-to-left) column 筆, to the last character 龍.

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The first character is 走.

It's a compliment by 朱處士 to 懷素 on his calligraphy. 筆(brush)下(under)唯(only)看(see)激(intense,fast,splashing)電(lightening)流(flows),字(character)成(finish)只(only)畏(fear)盤(coiling)龍(dragon)走(runs). Under the brush one can only see the intense lightening flows, after the characters are written, one fears that they fly away like a coiling dragon. It describes the 氣勢 imposing manner of 懷素's cursive writing.


What is the significance of these Taoistic seals?

See above. I gave their origins. It's quite hard for me to express the philosophy ideas in English. It might be helpful to read the given links.

Since the painter's name is not written and the two two-character seals do not form compact words, it's very likely that they give his names.

Why is it printed and not written?

On the paintings, we add 題款. 題 includes the title, and sometimes poems. 款 says date (sometimes location), the name of the painter, and the seal of the painter. By the name of the painter, I do not narrowly mean given names. If the painter has 字 or 號, they are more likely to be used than 名. These are written. There are norms on which writing style to use, selecting among 行書、草書、楷書、隸書、小篆. 款 is usually written in a smaller font that 題, sometimes with a different style. In 鍾進士鬼趣圖, the writings are done in 草書, and 款 has a smaller font. Seals usually includes the painter's names (字 號 名), and can optionally have other things that show the painter's pursuit or thought related to the painting. Those are usually in pieces, not as complete as the writing. They are done in seals not in writing due to historical heritages. Thousands of years ago, their ancestors were used on bronze. The style has also become decorative.

Does it mean the artist identifies with the movement/philosophy?

It could be but not necessarily. Chinese culture are shaped by 儒 Confucianism and heavily influenced by 佛 Buddhism and 道 Taoism. They are so intertwined that many of our beliefs can find roots in all three of them.

墨子 believes in 天志明鬼. That is gods and ghosts will reward the monarchs or nobles and punish the tyrannical. This blends nicely with the legends of 鍾馗.


In a way the pair of paintings juxtaposes Heaven and Hell. With the portrayed painter representing the level of heaven by his aspirations for the spiritual aspect in performing his brushwork. While Zhong Kui represents hell.

I wouldn't say that the portrayed painter representing the level of heaven, which is really rare in Chinese paintings. The immortals will have have distinctive characteristics in paintings.

Although 鍾馗 does his service for 地府 Hell, he is a 神仙 (god). While 地府 is translated as Hell, it literally means 地 earth, 府 an administrative region, comparable to a province. 地府 is an administrative region of Heaven. So if there is a contrast, I think it would be the Mortals and the Immortals. Those being said, I don't see a clear connection between these two paintings.

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    Very interesting: Now, what is the significance of these Taoistic seals? Does it mean the artist identifies with the movement/philosophy? Why is it printed and not written? Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 10:08
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica See my updates in the answer.
    – lilysirius
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 23:09
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    @JED123 It was most likely painted in 1988, though in theory it could go back earlier than 1868, by a step of 60 years. For the other question see my updates. I also added some other contents in the answer.
    – lilysirius
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 23:26
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    @lilysirius Once again an incredible interesting update, I appreciate it. When searching for 懷素, I stumbled upon this page: kknews.cc/culture/6kkmnxv.html Here there is an image of a painter called Huai Su, looking similar to the one in my painting. After translating the site with Google Translate I found that a passage on the site says: His cursive calligraphy is called "Curious Cursive". Could it be that my painting (the one with the painter) is depicting Huai Su and the reason that the characters are more cursive on this painting is as a kind of homage to his "Curious Cursive"?
    – JED123
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 1:26
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    @JED123 Good catch! I do agree that the figure in the painting is 懷素. He was a Tang Dynasty monk, and in the painting he also looks a monk. 懷素 is famous for his 草書 cursive writing and his style is called 狂(crazy, wild)草. What could be better than using 狂草 to write the inscriptions for his portrait?
    – lilysirius
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 1:42

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