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November 14 1994 一九九四年十一月十四日刊



Illustration above the title:

Portraits: The Sweet Life No.1 is one of Zhu Wei’s many images of life in Mao’s China

Illustration under Zhu’s picture:

Serious art: Zhu Wei with his 1994 piece, The Sweet Life No.4, finds Westerners "comparatively innocent and not as sophisticated as the Chinese". Photograph by Frederic Brown

"I try to treat things as if it is the first time I have seen them."


Rebel with a cause that is all his own

By Angelica Cheung

Artist Zhu Wei tells Angelica Cheung he is a born worrier who sees the world through the eyes of a child.

Zhu Wei’s personality is a mirror image of his rebellious paintings. Like his art, Zhu appears straight-forward but is full of individualistic traits. He has a whiff of stubbornness about him, the kind of determined streak that makes him stand out from the rest.

The soldier-turned-painter is a loner, in his work and in his private life, but none the less has a strong sense of community spirit.

As the Beijing native stands next to paintings appearing in this solo exhibition in Hong Kong, there is only one conclusion that can be reached: he is the only person who could have created these iconoclastic studies of modern China.

To many Zhu and his paintings are bold, brash and unacceptable. But traditionalists might, if pressed, grudgingly admit he does have some artistic flair. A flair that has survived the stifling cultural diktats of the Communist Party.

Zhu says: "I just want to paint something different."

His show at Plum Blossoms Gallery, Exchange Square, is on until November 26. "I hate to follow what others do and I don’t give a shit what other people think of me. I paint only what I see and understand."

In his paintings, the city of Beijing is peopled by characters of exaggerated proportions and watchful eyes. Historical China and modern China inhabit the same city.

The China he portrays is urban, proletarian, decadent, funereal, exploitative, corrupt, old before its time. In a word, a civilization about to be destroyed and reborn.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers and female cadres walk the streets with Tang dynasty horses, grooms and an array of figures straight from the pages of China’s 5,000 years of history.

Texts inscribed on many of the paintings are drawn from such diverse sources as 18th-century Chinese erotic novels, lyrics by Beijing rocker and friend Cui Jian, and pithy statements from the novelist Milan Kundera.

Zhu uses basic colours. Tiananmen Square, often painted as a graveyard, features prominently in his backgrounds, as do images and writings of Mao.

Zhu, 28, who sports short hair, a scruffy T-shirt and trousers, says: "Many people think I am too young to paint these sophisticated works. In my short life, I have experienced the most critical period in Chinese history."

Born in 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution started, Zhu grew up amid mass slogan shoutings and stick obedience to Mao’s Little Red Book.

During his school days in such an extraordinary social environment, Zhu had no interest in his studies and his grades were poor. But he enjoyed drawing from a young age.

At 16, when the Gang of Four had been overthrown and economic reforms were underway, he joined the PLA. The strict military training he received helped toughen his character.

In the army, his artistic talent was discovered and he was enrolled by the Art College of the PLA in 1985. But his parents did not approve.

"At that time, the economic reforms made people care more for money," Zhu recalls.

"My parents thought art was useless because [they didn’t think it could] bring in money.

"They wanted me to follow them and become a doctor because it was a profitable job " many patients send doctors gifts or even money to have themselves cured.

"But I insisted on becoming an artist. So, they stopped supporting me when I went to college and I had to find ways to make money and support myself.

"It was easy. I drew advertisements for factories and picture books for publishing houses. The money I made was more than enough for the simple life of a student."

After graduation in 1989, he spent three years studying picture design at Beijing Film College, although he has no intention of entering the film industry.

Zhu left the army after graduation in 1992 and established his own studio in Beijing, painting what he liked and selling the pictures to make a living.

During his seven years in college he saw the rise of the new artistic movement in China, when many new artistic ideas and values emerged.

But the June 4 movement, another cultural turning point, caused many of the new artists to become disillusioned.

"Disappointed and helpless, we have become cynical towards society, and the heroism and idealism that used to prevail in Chinese arts have disappeared from our works," Zhu says.

"Now in China, things are being revalued and there is no clear difference between good and bad.

"Nothing is black and white like before when everybody believed in class struggle. I don’t want to criticize anything. I just want to show the reality.

"I paint society from an observer’s point of view and use a careless style to show the people and happenings around us.

"We give this style a new term " ‘cynical realism’," Zhu explains with a smile.

His 10 years of iron discipline in the army have left him with unforgettable memories and images of soldiers occupy an important position in his works. Five-point-stars, red flags, slogans and badges can be found in most of his paintings.

His personal experiences stand him out from his contemporaries. "I try to use a child’s eye to see the world, because the world in a child’s eyes is natural and pure as crystal, reflecting real life.

"I try to treat things as if it is the first time I have seen them," he says.

"Some people complain about having no topics to paint about. Actually, it’s because they use adults eyes to see the world. They take the people and things around them for granted and naturally, they all become boring.

"I know I’m still young and not mature enough. I need to be more experienced in terms of choosing topics and skills."

The comments sound unlikely from the mouth of a proud and confident Zhu whose achievements have already made him known in Beijing and, gradually, in Hong Kong.  

Earlier this year, his unusual paintings caught the attention of Hong Kong’s art circle when Plum Blossoms Gallery exhibited a small collection at the art fair, New Tends Art Hong Kong.

His paintings sell overseas through galleries and he says his current price is several thousand United States dollars per painting.

In December last year, he bought a 240-square-foot apartment in Beijing for more than HK$250,000. But he is not proud of his financial success so far.

"Actually, I’m the poorest among my classmates. I’m not as good in selling myself as they are. Many of them have bought large pieces of land in Beijing and built houses.

"However, I stick to my own principle. Many of them paint whatever they are asked, but I only paint when I have the inspiration.

"My ambition is to become an internationally-known painter, but not the richest one. It sounds very naïve, but I [hope it comes true]," Zhu says.

His only frustration may be his confrontation with his parents. He has not seen them for almost five years and they have no idea what he is doing.

His younger sister acts as their messenger, but she is loyal to her brother and never tells their parents where he lives.

"I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think it’s quite common in the West for children not to see their parents for several years.

"Before, whenever we met we quarreled. So, there is no point in meeting each other. I think it is the generation gap.

"I don’t tell them where I live, otherwise they will come [to see me]. I don’t let them know what I’m doing, otherwise they will worry for me. I just ask my sister to tell them that I’m healthy and happy. That’s enough," the rebel says of the family.

Zhu enjoys his independent life and socializing. He often goes with friends to a popular Western-style bar opposite the Belgian Embassy in Beijing where he met China’s first rocker Cui Jian.

The friends meet every Saturday night at the bar and stay there until the early hours.

Zhu’s next scheme could be setting Mao Zedong’s poems to rock music.

"I like Mao’s poems very much. It’s very interesting to find that Mao was conservative, but his poems are not. I think they are still worth reading now.

"It would be great fun to turn them into rock music. I am going to discuss this further with Cui Jian when I go back," Zhu.

It was in the same bar earlier this year that Zhu met his British girlfriend who is studying Chinese at the People’s University in Beijing.

Zhu lives near the university and had met her several times as he cycled past. He had not thought of speaking to her until they finally met in the bar.

With a shrug, he says: "None of my friends feel it strange to have a Western girlfriend or boyfriend. Nobody in the streets stares at us as we walk hand-in-hand. Beijing has really changed a lot.

"I like to make friends with Westerns. They are comparatively innocent and not as sophisticated as Chinese. If they like you, then they like you. They don’t take into consideration some other things as Chinese do.

"She is quite good-looking and nice to me. For most of the time, she speaks to me in Chinese. Sometimes I speak some English words. My English is really poor. Several times I started to learn, but never carried on. It’s a shame.

"We haven’t thought of our future yet. It’s too early. Just follow our instinct.

"I’m never optimistic. I was born to worry a lot, about everything. I even worry that the sky will fall and hit me. You think it’s funny? I mean it!"




























“他们希望我像他们那样当个医生,因为那是一个赚钱的工作- 很多病人给医生送礼甚至钱好让他们给治病。 










“我们给了这种新风格起了一个名字- ‘新现实主义’。”