8 Facts You Need to Know About Zhang Daqian, the Picasso of the East

Zhang Daqian (張大千, 1899-1983) is one of the most popular and prestigious Chinese artists of the twentieth century. Renowned for his splashed-ink landscapes, Zhang’s works have been selling for millions of dollars in recent years, reigning him the best-selling artist in the world in 2011 and breaking his auction record, surpassing his former acquaintance, Picasso.

Zhang Daqian's Peach Blossom Spring

In 2016, the master’s Peach Blossom Spring sold for a whopping HK$270m (US$34.7m) in Hong Kong, breaking the artist’s auction record. While everyone knows about his expensive paintings, what do we know about his life? Here are some facts about the Chinese master. 

1. His love for gibbons originated from his birth story

Zhang Daqian. The monkey on the pine tree (1977)

Born in Sichuan Province in China to an artistic family, the Chinese painter’s original name was Zhang Zhengquan (張正權). The day before his birth, his mother had a very peculiar dream. In her dream, she saw a man with a white beard who handed her a black gibbon and urged her to take good care of it, reminding her that the animal dislikes the smell of meat and enjoys freedom. People who heard the story believed that Zhang was a gibbon reincarnated as he could not stand the smell of raw meat, even though he was a big meat eater.

Ever since then, Zhang had been very fond of gibbons and loved to observe their every move while keeping them in his garden. Not only did he feature gibbons in his paintings, but he also gave himself the name Zhang Yuan (張爰). “Yuan” in his name is a homophone of the character for gibbons (猿) in Chinese.

2. He was forced into banditry

When Zhang was 17, he went to Chongqing to attend school but did not have enough money for transportation to return home. He and a few friends, therefore, decided to walk some 200km home, back to the Neijiang area. Unfortunately, they were captured by bandits on the way and demanded to write a letter home for ransom. The leader of the bandits was impressed by Zhang’s calligraphy, thus forcing Zhang to work for him as his assistant.

As a member of the group, Zhang was pressured into robbery. He had no interest in gold so he only took some books and paintings. After spending around 100 days as a bandit, Zhang was caught by the police together with the group but was rescued by his family in the end.

3. He was once a monk and thus got the name “Zhan Daqian”

At the age of 19, Zhang Daqian and his brother were sent to Kyoto, Japan to pursue their studies. This meant that Zhang had to be separated from his fiancee and older cousin Xie Shunhua, whom he had been arranged to marry since they were young.

Things took a turn for the worse when Xie suffered from a disease and passed away a year later. Being deeply grieved, Zhang returned home for the funeral and decided to take the tonsure and become a monk. Zhang Daqian was the name given to him at the monastery. However, his brother seized him and forced him to return home. If Zhang had never become a monk and got the name “Daqian”, he might not have been as popular as he is today.

4. His developed his signature splashed-ink technique when he had cataracts

Zhang Daqian's Lotus and Mandarin Ducks sold at Sotheby's for HK$191m (US$24.5m)

Zhang Daqian's Archenese Lake sold for RMB100.8m (US$14m)

Zhang’s splashed-color paintings fetched the highest market prices for contemporary Chinese paintings at international auctions. These are late works of Zhang, executed when his eyesight deteriorated.

Zhang injured his eyes in an accident when he was almost sixty and had since suffered from cataracts. However, he did not stop painting. Instead of focusing on details in a painting like he used to, he developed his mature splashed-ink technique called “Pocai” (潑彩) which combines abstract expressionism with traditional Chinese styles of painting.

5. He had multiple wives and lovers

Zhang Daqian and his second wife Huang Ningsu

Apart from Xie whom we mentioned, Zhang had multiple wives and lovers in his life. After the death of Xie, Zhang’s family forced him to marry Ceng Zhengrong whom he did not have any affection for in 1919. He married his second wife Huang Ningsu in 1922 who gave birth to eight children for him. In the autumn of 1934, he met Yeung and was immediately attracted by her beauty as she resembled the beautiful women in scholar Tang Yin's paintings. Yeung became Zhang's third wife. In 1949, the 48-year-old Zhang met his daughter’s friend Xu who was only 18 and impregnated her. She became his fourth wife.

The great artist also had lovers when he lived overseas. In 1927, he moved to Korea and met Chi Chunghong, a Korean woman who took care of his daily needs. After 1949, Zhang moved to Brazil and met his Japanese lover Yamada Himeko. However, as Himeko’s intentions were suspicious, Zhang decided to end the relationship. 

6. He started out emulating other great Chinese artists

Zhang Daqian. Children Playing Under A Pomegranate Tree (1948)

When Zhan Daqian first started out as a painter, he practised by emulating other artists. He made forgeries of other ancient Chinese masters such as Shi Tao, Tang Yin, and Chen Hongshou. Rumour has it that he would copy the paintings numerous times until he could remember every line and detail of the painting without having to look at it. His superb mimicking skills helped him to establish his name amongst famous collectors and artists.

7. He was a world traveller

Zhang Daqian in Brazil

In 1949, Zhang moved to Hong Kong due to the Second Kuomintang-Communist Civil War. Ever since then, he had not returned to China, travelling from one place to another. He travelled around Taiwan for over a year before moving to India in 1950. He landed in Hong Kong in 1951, then moved to Brazil in 1953 and stayed there for 10 years. Before emigrating to America in 1969, he held exhibitions in France, Belgium, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, England and many more countries. He settled down in Taipei in 1978 but never stopped travelling.

8. Picasso asked Zhang to criticise his paintings

In 1957, Zhang Daqian was invited to hold exhibitions in The Louvre and Musée Guimet in Paris, where Picasso was also holding a show. As a social butterfly, Zhang seized this opportunity to meet the Western master, regardless of Picasso’s weird temperament. Lo and behold, Picasso was delighted to meet Zhang and even asked him to criticise his Chinese paintings. Zhang directly told Picasso that he did not have the right brushes to do Chinese art. Ten years later, Picasso received a gift from Zhang– two Chinese writing brushes made from the hair of 2500 three-year-old cows.