News | FQM Interview: Zhang Yirong

Author: Yuan Zheng


  • Q: You learned the techniques of Chinese painting from your father when you were very young, and often shadowed him when he was making murals for local monasteries in Northern Shaanxi. Could you talk a bit more about that experience? How did it influence your career? 


A: There were many Buddhist and Daoist temples and monasteries in Northern Shaanxi. Some of them were ancient, some were newly built. My father was an artist who made murals and archways for those places, which had a significant impact on me during my formative years. During that period, I received training in making traditional Chinese paintings. My love for murals and lineworks were also influenced by this experience. 


Zhang Yirong © Courtesy of Artist

  • Q: I understand that you studied literature in college and had worked in various fields before becoming a professional artist. Did you write any literary works? What made you finally decide to choose art as your career? 


A: My BA was in literature and my MA in communication. After graduation, I worked in media for a long time—television, online, magazines, publishing houses. At the time, I also wrote a lot as a hobby, but I never wanted to get published. I never thought of being a professional artist when I was working other jobs. Painting provided relief from my fast-paced media job. Eventually, I chose painting because of my love for it. 

  • Q: Your drawings are often accompanied by inscriptions of writings by ancient sages. How does the picture correspond to the quotes? Do the words offer a certain guidance on reading the image, or, does reading the image help the viewers aspire to the mental states being described? 

A: I select the passages after I have finished the drawing. I love reading them and am moved by their content and rhythm, which goes well with the tranquility that the paintings evoke. Though the calligraphic inscriptions and the drawing are presented independently in my work, I also hope that they can have subtle connections. 

Zhang Yirong, Siddhartha Mani, 2017, ink on paper, 139 x 62 cm

  • Q: Some of the inscriptions are written by your husband, Tai Xiangzhou. As a fellow artist, do you influence each other? Are you after the same things in your art practices? 


A: As artists, we definitely influence each other. However, in terms of techniques, there are still big differences.

Zhang Yirong, Following Peach, 2012, Ink on Paper, 15 x 19 in, 38.1 x 48.3 cm

  • Q: When it comes to subject matter, besides Buddhist drawings, you mostly focus on still lifes, like flowers and butterflies. What is the intention behind choosing these as your subjects? 

A: Everything has its own seasons. Following the laws of nature, flowers bloom as the season comes, without any inhibition. There is an innate instinct to follow nature. For me, painting is pure instinct. Like flowers blooming naturally when the season comes, without any need for rules or concealment, painting is a pure and uncomplicated art. One has to empty one’s mind— to remove and forget— in order to make the purest work. If the viewer feels something from looking at my work, that is perhaps a kind of heartfelt resonance. At the same time, flowers and butterflies make up the majority of my “Qi Yuan” (Jetavana) series. Gautama Buddha taught at Jetavana. Besides the three-thousand disciples of the Buddha, everything in Jetavana, including the flowers and plants, had Buddha-nature. The depiction of these elements also evokes a certain peacefulness that could lead to samadhi. 

“The Rain Freshens”, Installation View, ©THE FQM,2022

Zhang Yirong, Lotuses, 2012, Ink on Paper, 11 1/2 x 49 ½  in

  • Q: Your still lifes are very detailed and intricate, reminding me of early Western natural history prints of flora and fauna. There is also a similar tradition in China, although it has a different perspective from Western understandings of natural history and its taxonomies. Some contemporary Chinese artists are also interested in these areas. In your view, what are the reasons behind investigating nature in this way? Or, what are you looking for when you create these kinds of works? 

A:  As a practitioner of Buddhism, the philosophy and principles behind artistic creations are the same [as that of Buddhism]: to leave behind the material world in order to enter into the purity of the mental world. Through my intricate depictions, I want my viewers to be immersed in a state of peacefulness. When I create, I am in a state of oblivion, and I hope my viewers can be in a similar state when they look at my creations. 

“The Rain Freshens”, Installation View, ©THE FQM,2022

  • Q: You once said: “The core philosophy of Chinese painting is Dao. Painting is Dao, which is the source of its outer beauty. Also, Chinese paintings are closely related to Buddhism, especially Chan Buddhism. Therefore, the highest state of Chinese painting is close to Dao and to Chan. This is not just about painting itself, but one’s inner tranquility and connection to the cosmos.” Your view resonates with me greatly. Sometimes, painting is just a means to an end, though many Western artists may not necessarily agree, or have even thought about it in that way. Many contemporary Chinese artists are more influenced by Western traditions of painting. In your opinion, do these unique understandings of painting need to be passed on? If so, does such lineage necessarily rely on the inheritance of “traditional methods?”

A: At the end of the day, Chinese painting is about yijing (意境), which is a uniquely Chinese criterion for judging art and literature. To explore beyond the limit of visual representation and to incorporate the immaterial, in order to expand one’s imagination and experience the unexpected beauty of the “endless yijing”—these are uniquely Chinese understandings that can only be experienced within the realm of traditional Chinese culture. In terms of artistic lineage, one must have an understanding of traditional Chinese philosophy, aesthetics, and culture. Creation and appreciation are both communications of the mind. 

Zhang Yirong, Poppies, 2012, Ink on Paper, 15 x 19 in, 38.1 x 48.3 cm

  • Q: Lastly, I want to ask you about the makings of Buddhist art. There is an anecdote in A New Account of the Tales of the World (世说新语), where someone criticizes Dai Kui, who makes excellent Buddhist paintings, for being “too invested in worldly matters,” which makes his paintings appear “crass.” To which, Dai replies: “Only Wu Guang can be exempt from your criticism.” I often wonder if the level of self-cultivation can be reflected in one’s painting, and whether one must “leave worldly matters behind” in order to avoid being “crass.” What do you think is the relationship between ethics and artistic creation, which is itself a uniquely Chinese consideration? 

A: Guo Ruo Xu once said: “One’s character determines the level of achievement of one’s art.” In the history of Chinese paintings, celebrated artists were all invested in self-cultivation in several ways. Firstly, they all paid close attention to personal character; without a good character, there would be no principle in using ink. Secondly, one must travel widely and read extensively, which inspires new ideas and opens one’s mind. Thirdly, one learns from tradition by looking at the wonders of previous generations. These comments are still relevant today, especially with the convenience of modern transportation and publishing. 


Besides these points, my personal understandings are: 1. The artist has to practice and develop their spirituality, which gives the work a certain power that is capable of touching one’s soul. It requires one’s practice to be at a certain level, so the artist can imbue the work with the power of an empty mind. From this perspective, the level [of one’s spiritual development] will certainly be reflected in one’s work. 2. Absolute skills have the ability to transcend. If the skill reaches a certain level, the artist does not have to convey their emotions in the work; the goal is to remove the self from the work in order to achieve the purest techniques that are able to move the audience. 3. “To leave worldly matters behind” does not necessitate “purity,” but this is a matter of practice, which cannot be easily explained. To avoid confusion, I will not get into the details. 

“The Rain Freshens”, Installation View, ©THE FQM,2022

August 18, 2022