GHOST-CATCHING god Zhong Kui is often pictured as a ferocious and even gruesome figure who's steeped in the dark side since he battles evil and commands 80,000 demons.
Chinese people traditionally hang or paste pictures of the folk deity on thresholds to ward off ghosts and evil spirits.
But master ink-wash painter Dong Zhiyi, who has made Zhong Kui his signature subject for three decades, creates a majestic and heroic figure, a noble deity who's much nearer to the bright side as he banishes evil. Some works are quite large, more than a meter in height.
And Dong's Zhong Kui paintings, which he mostly auctions for charity, are said by some enthusiastic collectors to have warded off misfortune.
"Many supernatural things have happened to my Zhong Kui paintings, which I can hardly explain," says the 65-year-old Shanghai artist.
Sometimes the power of his Zhong Kui works exceeds all expectation and defies explanation. He cites these cases:
The home of a friend who owns a painting was broken into, but nothing was stolen; only the door was broken. Dong's Zhong Kui was hanging in a prominent place.
In Taiwan, the home of a collector was undamaged in an earthquake, while most houses in the neighborhood collapsed. Dong's Zhong Kui was right there.
A woman client was tormented by vivid dreams of her first lover after his death; after she purchased Dong's Zhong Kui, the shadow and dreams went away.
"I am not a person who exaggerates and I don't know the reasons behind these events, but if my Zhong Kui works sometimes, I feel satisfied that those in need can be helped.
Zhong Kui is considered a vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings, a powerful figure able to summon 80,000 demons. In traditional Chinese culture, images of Zhong Kui are often painted on household gates as a guardian spirit, as well as on places of business involving valuable items.
Zhong Kui's popularity in folklore dates back to the reign of Emperor Xuangzong (r AD 712-756) in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). According to Song Dynasty (960-1279) records, when Emperor Xuangzong was gravely ill, he had vision of Zhong Kui. He dreamed of two ghosts, the bigger one wearing the hat of an official, captured the smaller ghost, tore out its eye and ate it. The large ghost then introduced himself as Zhong Kui.
When the emperor awoke, he had recovered. He commissioned the court painter to produce an image of his Zhong Kui to show court officials. The picture heavily influenced later works.
Since the Tang Dynasty, many artists have painted Zhong Kui, including masters such as Wu Daozi, Xu Beihong and Fan Zeng, says Dong, "but it is not easy to capture the image of Zhong Kui filled with anger, spirit and power."
Dong says his "emotional link" with Zhong Kui was forged when he was a small boy listening to stories about Zhong Kui from his grandmother. "I almost believed he was a real person in life, a big hero," he recalls.
Dong's father was a famous traditional ink-wash painter, but the boy asked his father to introduce him to Hua Shanchuan, a renowned illustrator an cartoon painter.
"I wasn't inclined toward my father's style, but I was drawn to Hua's lines and curves in carving the characters in comics books. He was able to depict a figure's unique character and varied expressions," Dong says.
Because of Hua's influence, Dong chose Zhong Kui as his art signature. He altered Zhong's appearance, backdrop and general tone of the paintings. He adopted the red paint for his Zhong's robes from Japan and blue from France.
"The Chinese have a tradition of hanging Zhong Kui painting at the front door to expel evil, but no one prefers a dark, scary Zhong Kui with no aesthetic appeal," the painter says. "I hope my paintings can both counteract evil forces and be decorations of beauty."
Although stories about the seemingly magical powers of his Zhong Kui have spread widely by word of mouth, Dong keeps a low profile and lives a simple life.
"I am a person who has never been keen on fame and money, though galleries have approached me with attractive terms," he says. "I always remember what my father told me - try to be an ordinary person all your life."
Nearly 11 years ago, Dong donated 700,000 yuan (today US$11,352) to establish a "hope school" in Yancheng in Jiangsu Province.
Every year, he auctions 10 of his Zhong Kui paintings to help people with disabilities and medical conditions, as well as poor students.
Dong says he was especially moved when a poor family went to his office and knelt in front of him to express their gratitude. They had waited two hours before security personnel told Dong he had visitors. They immediately fell to their knees when he appeared, saying one of his donations helped a family member who had been seriously ill.
"They had wanted to buy me a gift, but they were too poor so they decided to give the most traditional respect - they knelt down," Dong recalls. "I'm happy that the most of the proceeds from the sale of his paintings go to charity."
Last year, he donated 200,000 yuan to the hope school he helped found to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
After his retirement as editor of the arts section of a local newspaper, Dong lives quietly and paints Zhong Kui. He is frugal and doesn't smoke, drink or play mahjong.
"My current pension is enough to support my material needs," he says. "My teacher once told me I was perfect to paint Zhong Kui, because of both my technique and personality. If an artist is not decent and honest, then the Zhong Kui he creates cannot be decent and honest.
"I want to paint Zhong Kui and act like Zhong Kui," the man concludes.