The city of SHENZHEN, China is depicted in a painting where a child is seen with their mouth agape while a person dressed in medical attire performs a tonsil swab. Another painting shows a masked officer and medical personnel protecting an apartment that is blocked off by ropes and seals, labeled with the word “CLOSED.” The residents in the painting appear distressed and hopeless.
Zeng Fanzhi, aged 85, has created several portraits as a tribute to China’s three years of rigorous “zero-COVID” measures, which caused widespread demonstrations a year ago. However, Zeng, a former architect residing in Shenzhen, does not oppose these actions, which involved mass testing, mandatory home confinement, and quarantine facilities for millions of individuals.
Zeng has dedicated a significant portion of his life to serving the Chinese government, creating architectural structures in Tiananmen Square and constructing coal power plants for the Ministry of Coal. He is also a member of Shenzhen’s officially supported artist collective and his artwork has been featured on postage stamps and has received awards.
The artist’s viewpoint differs from that of the young demonstrators, influenced by their experiences growing up in China during times of conflict and change, and later witnessing a period of economic prosperity and development. For Zeng, China’s strict enforcement of “zero-COVID” measures was imperative, and the public’s compliance with them was admirable.
Xi Jinping, the leader of China, believes that art should be created from the perspective of the people, according to Zeng. Zeng clarifies that this is why he chooses to focus on ordinary individuals in his work. He believes that art should represent the real lives of people, and this is reflected in the subjects he chooses for his paintings.
During his childhood, Zeng experienced significant and chaotic events in Chinese history. He was born to parents who were government workers and had to escape to Chongqing, the capital of China during World War II. Zeng’s family frequently relocated to different cities in order to avoid the Japanese invasion and the civil war in China.
In 1949, the Communist Party’s triumph brought an end to years of conflict in China, providing a sense of stability for the nation. Zeng had a desire to pursue a career in art and attempted to pass entrance exams for art school in 1957, but was unsuccessful on two occasions. His parents urged him to consider studying architecture instead.
Shortly after, Mao Zedong, the leader of Communist China, initiated the Great Leap Forward, a bold yet catastrophic effort to modernize the poor nation into an industrialized force. Millions perished from famine and students throughout China were required to attend political education classes.
In 1962, after graduating from college, Zeng was tasked with joining an architectural team in Beijing. He was responsible for creating designs for Tiananmen Square and the Avenue of Heavenly Peace.
After a couple of years, Zeng and his partner, who is also an architect, made the decision to relocate to Pingdingshan. This city is known for having one of the biggest coal reserves in China and is surrounded by mountains in the central region of the country.
For two decades, they created facilities for removing coal, including crushers and dormitories for workers.
In the 1980s, the pair became restless. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping took over as a reformist leader and China began to open up. The coasts offered new possibilities and they pleaded to be moved there.
“We didn’t feel like we were being utilized effectively, so we want to move on,” Zeng stated.
During the 1990s, there was a high demand for college graduates and job opportunities were plentiful. Many of these graduates relocated to Shenzhen, a special economic zone situated near Hong Kong in the southern region of China. This was a time when China’s leaders were exploring market capitalism, resulting in rapid growth in Shenzhen. Zeng secured employment at Shenzhen University, which at the time was situated in the outskirts and surrounded by fields with unpaved roads leading to the campus entrance.
Over the following years, Shenzhen experienced rapid growth and Zeng’s family became successful. A large number of people migrated to Shenzhen to work in factories that produced goods for international markets. With their skills, Zeng and his wife played a significant role in designing many of the city’s residential and commercial buildings, which stood tall in the previously empty fields.
After becoming wealthy, they purchased an apartment in the city center, while their kids traveled abroad for education. Presently, Shenzhen boasts a higher number of skyscrapers than New York or Tokyo.
“My husband and I have experienced many highs and lows,” states Zhao Sirong. “Shenzhen was a developing city and we were among the first to settle here.”
At the age of 80, Zeng decided to retire from his career in architecture and focus on his true passion: painting.
Although he was trained in a traditional manner, he acquired his new skill through modern methods of the 21st century. Every day, he would view online tutorials from expert artists.
Zeng’s artwork is influenced by the style of socialist realism, which he was exposed to during his upbringing in China under Mao’s rule. He draws inspiration from works by renowned Russian realist artist Ilya Repin, such as “Barge Haulers on the Volga.” This painting portrays eleven men pulling a barge, with exhaustion clearly evident on their faces. It is a raw representation of grueling work and the bravery of common individuals in challenging circumstances.
Zeng expressed that it left a profound impact on him.
Zeng was attracted to similar subjects. In a piece called “Life is Not Easy,” he depicts a migrant worker struggling in the cold, bundled up in scarves and selling vegetables while snow falls around her.
Zeng’s spouse, Zhao, expresses frustration with his strict schedule for painting. Every day, Zeng travels to his studio and spends the entire morning and most of the afternoon working on his art. Even on weekends, the elderly artist continues to work, leaving his wife alone with only her plants for company.
Zhao chuckled and sighed as she expressed her desire for her husband to slow down his pace and stop behaving like a young man. She questioned why he was working so tirelessly, unable to comprehend his actions.
However, Zhao continues to endorse her husband’s work as she believes that staying active is crucial in preventing cognitive decline. They are amazed by the younger generation who pass their time idly, constantly scrolling through videos on their phones and wasting their savings on outdoor games of mahjong in the humid city of Shenzhen.
Zeng states that their life is still satisfying. They acknowledge that some may view painting as exhausting, but questions if others also find their hobbies draining.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread, Zeng became intrigued by its impact on everyday life in his surroundings.
Initially, he depicted nurses cleaning residents and children participating in virtual lessons. However, with the implementation of stricter regulations and the lockdown of Zeng’s community last year, he spent his time on his balcony painting images of residents confined to their buildings, guards on watch, and masked delivery drivers throwing food over fences.
Zeng says that this was an unprecedented occurrence that has never been seen before on a global scale.
During the winter, Zeng and his wife contracted the virus after the sudden lifting of controls. While his wife recovered quickly, Zeng took several weeks to recuperate. In China, a significant number of people died as hospitals were overwhelmed and medication became scarce.
“We all contracted the illness,” stated Zhao. “We faced difficulties for the past three years, and then there was a sudden change. We were not mentally prepared.”
Although the pandemic is historically significant, there are limited representations of this time period in China beyond official displays and state television that praise the government’s efforts in fighting the virus. During Xi’s leadership, the government has increased censorship on artistic expression, causing some artists to relocate abroad.
At a recent art exhibition in Beijing, Zeng’s painting was hidden behind a column. The organizers felt it was too pessimistic, as it showed people being restricted to their homes.
“Hehe, unfortunately we were unable to showcase it,” he chuckled, stepping away from his booth and motioning towards the painting.
Zeng views his art as a form of remembrance rather than criticism. He experienced a significant historical event and regards his artwork as a tribute to the sacrifices and challenges faced by regular individuals.
Zeng and Zhao are currently receiving government benefits that include public healthcare, reduced-cost food, complimentary public transportation, and a monthly pension of 10,000 yuan (equivalent to $1,400). These benefits far exceed their expectations when they were younger and living in a war-torn China.
Zhao acknowledges that we comprehend the actions taken by the country. We collectively believe that our approach was appropriate, as reopening too soon could have resulted in a high death toll, similar to that of the United States.
At present, Zeng is diligently creating a fresh set of artwork featuring Chinese leader Xi Jinping, with the intention of promoting him in a positive light. His most recent piece depicts Xi humbly sitting among villagers, and he has tentatively titled it “Chairman Xi Leading Us Towards Prosperity.”
Zeng states that his work can contribute to highlighting the strengths of our unique socialist system. He believes that the current era is exceptional and aims to create paintings that reflect its essence.