Creative painting using Chinese ink brush
From rural roots to artistic stardom
Published: Mar 19, 2024 11:24 PM
Zhang Mingxiang's work featuring chickens mocking a phoenix Photos: Courtesy of Zhang Mingxiang

Zhang Mingxiang's work featuring chickens mocking a phoenix Photos: Courtesy of Zhang Mingxiang

In a golden field, an illustrated lion stands on his hind legs with a comical look of befuddlement on his face, bathed in the warm glow of the sun. Accompanied by a flock of abstract birds and a distant tower, the artwork is titled Lion and Beyond, a nod to the Chinese pinyin homophone "Poetry and Beyond."

This heartwarming creation is just one facet of the imaginative world of Zhang Mingxiang, a 26-year-old grassroots artist from a village in East China's Shandong Province.

With a bold and humorous touch, Zhang's artworks often draw inspiration from everyday moments and puns rooted in Chinese phonetics. From witty interpretations to heartwarming narratives, his creations have garnered more than 6 million followers on several social media platforms and sold more than 60,000 pieces on the video platform BiliBili.

"I believe that today's youths have their own thoughts and are good at expressing themselves. While my artworks serve as encouragement for those who have just started working, providing a channel for emotional expression," Zhang told the Global Times in a recent interview. 

The work <em>Lion and Beyond</em> Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Mingxiang

The work Lion and Beyond Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Mingxiang

Hard journey

However, Zhang's path to art was far from straightforward. He was born in a rural village where his father made a living as a barber and by renting out comic books. Zhang's interest in painting stemmed from the illustrations in those comic books. 

At the age of 6, Zhang began to teach himself to draw by using discarded red bricks to practice on walls due to the unaffordability of art supplies. Added to this cost, his academic performance also faltered, forcing him to work odd jobs to save up money for art lessons.

Despite facing adversity, including a disabling caused by an injury sustained at the age of 11, drawing remained Zhang's passion.

Thanks to the increased popularity of short-format videos, he was able to share his practice sessions online, gradually gaining a following. 

Due to a lack of formal art education, some professionals would say Zhang's paintings were "not right," which made Zhang think that this path might not be well-suited for him.

Eventually, he transitioned to using Chinese ink brushes, adding more creativity and vibrancy to his work, which became popular online.

"I believe my art is popular because people can see themselves in it," Zhang said. "Many followers say my work speaks to them personally."

Zhang's life also got improved by selling paintings. According to him, he could only earn a few thousand yuan before his artworks gained popularity, but now he is able to earn more than 200,000 yuan per month.

His dreams, however, are even bigger. "My goal is to share my work with more people and inspire and motivate them with humor," Zhang said. "Many of my paintings reflect my journey of overcoming obstacles."

The work featuring an ox in a kettle Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Mingxiang

The work featuring an ox in a kettle Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Mingxiang

Flourished creativity 

For Zhang, it seems that the inspiration for creation is endless. In his eyes, any scene or words can serve as a wellspring of inspiration.

"I find inspiration from various states of mind," Zhang explains.

For instance, when he fries an egg, his imagination takes flight and he wonders why he has not learned to fry the walls (learned to be resilient), because "resilient" sounds like "fry a wall" in Chinese pinyin. Then an interesting painting comes to life. 

When he wishes good things to happen, he thinks "good 'persimmon' will happen," which sounds like "good things will happen," due to the shared pronunciation between persimmon and things in pinyin.

The motif of chickens recurs frequently in Zhang's work. He explains that his fondness for dragons and horses in his earlier work gradually shifted to portraying chickens as he thinks chickens reflect the struggles and aspirations of today's youth. 

One of his most memorable works is The Eagle Spreads Its Wings, in which a chicken was used to represent the majestic bird. 

"The image of a chicken reminds me of myself; despite being ordinary, I have always strived diligently, much like a chicken flapping its wings," he said. "I believe that everyone has the potential to shine bright like gold," Zhang explained his fondness for chickens in his artwork.

Over time, Zhang's artistic style has evolved from mimicking others' works in black and white to adopting a brush painting style he calls "traditional futurism," characterized by many animals with comically large eyes. 

Some media outlets dubbed Zhang as the "Grassroots Picasso," but he humbly dismisses the title, saying he is just a "painting hobbyist." 

According to Zhang, his painting style was partly inspired by the creativity of children when he worked as an art teacher. 

Zhang hopes to engage in more exciting ventures, including collaborating with interesting brands and organizing exhibitions at home and abroad to encourage more young people to pursue their dreams. In China, there are many grassroots artists like Zhang, who lack formal training but possess talent and determination. 

"I always believe that it is essential to learn to persevere. If you love something, then put in more effort. The experiences we have are laying the foundation for the future, and we will always leave our mark," Zhang said.