Hanli Zheng greeted me with a warm handshake and a beaming smile. “Good to
meet you,” he said, “…come inside and have a bottle of water”.
I had heard great things about Mr Zheng: wonderfully talent artist; distinguished professor of art; gifted
teacher; and great with kids.
Zhou Zhou, who is five years old, is a big fan of his.
“I love going there [to Mr Zheng’s summer art school], it’s great
fun and the teacher is really cool.” Before
her five-lesson crash course in art at Mr Zheng’s, all of Zhou Zhou's paintings contained stick characters with round
heads and big smiley faces. After a dozen
or so hours of tuition from Mr Zheng and his wife, Ms Wei, she’s gone from matchstick men to the attached Van Goghesque
The burning question I had to ask was:
Why does someone whose work now commands five figure reserve prices in European auction houses teach art to small
groups of five to eleven year olds in his summer school in Beidaihe, a small town in Hebei province?
Mr Zheng’s face lit up. “Why?!” he beamed.
“It’s because I just love to teach children. They are so open to doing new things”.
And how does teaching small children compare with teaching
“I can be absolutely
straight with the young ones… I can tell them what I think in a direct way, without needing to dress up the words.”
Mr Zheng’s love of children is apparent
in his sensitive depiction of them in some of his paintings; many of which feature auto-biographical scenes from his childhood
in a remote, small mountain village in Dongbei’s [Manchuria’s] Jilin province, very near to the border with North
It was there that he
developed his love of art. Somehow his talent
was spotted and he was able to progress through the system all the way to study art at university in Changchun. Then the army came calling.
He was signed up by the army’s entertainment division,
which toured the region’s bases, performing song and dance (with revolutionary verve and propagandist scripts no doubt). Mr Zheng smiles at the memory of this. “The army and I didn’t really get on… we had a different
way of thinking,” he says with a glint
in his eye while gesturing to the long black pony tail that has been his trade mark since he was (honourably) discharged.
On leaving the army, Mr Zheng took up a
post as a teacher at Yanshan University (where he met his wife), in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province. After several years there he was awarded a professorship. Although he loves teaching, he most enjoys the time in his studio painting
I asked him about the
future and what he dreams of doing. More
than anything he would like to exhibit his work in the great art cities of Europe. But before he does that, he dreams of fulfilling a boyhood ambition by travelling there to study
the great artists that have inspired him. He
lists Michelangelo, Picasso, Turner, Hogarth and – I wasn’t surprised to hear – Van Gogh as his favourites.
As he talks about this “dream trip” his eyes light up again. He talks animatedly, in short, sharp sentences, that are punctuated with smiles of wonderment. It’s as if, as a boy, he were being asked “what
would you like to do when you grow up”. In a word, Mr Zheng, then as now, wants to “explore” – and, of course, to savour every moment while
doing so. He sees the world with the eyes
of someone who is in awe of the wonderful things that can be discovered.
Even when he talks about topics that the vast-majority of grown-ups
would consider mundane, Mr Zheng exudes excitement. It’s this boundless energy and enthusiasm that his young pupils can readily empathise with.
Mr Zheng takes his place among the small group
of young children. “Right!” he enthuses, “What are we going to do today?!”.