Bada Shanren, a purported child prodigy, began painting and writing poetry in his early childhood. About the year 1644, when the Ming emperor committed suicide and the Manchu army from the north attacked Beijing, the young Han Chinese man sought refuge in a vihara. Because he was a Ming prince, the dynastic upheaval created a great amount of uncertainty for his position in society. As years passed and the Qing dynasty became more firmly established, there was less and less insecurity among the Qing regime about remaining Ming loyalties and possible future rebellions. Due to these more stable circumstances, after 40 years, Bada Shanren deemed it acceptable to leave the monastery and to re-enter day-to-day life among society. In the aftermath of a nervous breakdown that could have been staged to avoid retribution for his family background, Zhu Da abandoned his monastic life and developed a career as a professional painter, adopting a series of descriptive pseudonyms, most notably Bada Shanren by which he is most often known today. Bada Shanren is believed to have a mental illness. He is said to have screamed and made weird sounds while painting. The stylized vertical writing of his pseudonym Bada Shanren (八大山人) looks like the characters for laugh (笑) and cry (哭), thus by signing his paintings he implied his confusion and feelings of grief for the fate of his country and home.
His paintings feature sharp brush strokes which are attributed to the sideways manner by which he held his brush. In the 1930s, Chinese painter Zhang Daqian produced several forgeries of Bada Shanren's works but they are easily spotted by the trained eye, because the modern copies were softer and rounder. Yale University scholar Fred Fangyu Wang was a major collector of Bada Shanren paintings from the 1960s until his death in 1997.