Jiang was born in 1938, in Ningbo, Zhejiiang Province, in China. Even as a child he displayed a great
love and talent for painting and drawing, and early on he knew the course his life would take.
In 1959, in a highly competitive exam he won admission to the prestigious Central Academy of Fine
Arts in Beijing. From 1962-64 he studied with the famous Chinese artist Huang Yong-yu, who first
exposed him to the paintings from the Dunguang caves. In 1964 he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree.
This was the last class to graduate before the cultural revolution. Jiang also learned about traditional
Chinese art, an influence which would remain with him. Upon graduation in 1964 Jiang and a small
number of other artists volunteered to go down to the Yunnan province. This turned out to be a
blessing. This beautiful province is on the Vietnamese border. It is lush and tropical, filled with exotic
flora and fauna,and is home to more than 20 different minority peoples.
His new home allowed his talents to burst forth. Jiang's talent was so obvious that from 1966-73 the
Chinese Government assigned him to produce "Socialist Realism" propaganda posters and sculptures
during the Cultural Revolution. He even painted the famous large red-faced poster of Chairman Mao.
But this sterile exercise did nothing to release the emotional side of Jiang's nature, and at night he
worked in his small room, on his bed, to create his own style. The natural beauty of the Yunnan
province inspired him. With two other artists, He Neng and Liu Shaohui, Jiang secretly formed the
nucleus of what was first called the "Heavy Colorist" school and is now known as the "Yunnan School,"
Jiang's work quickly gained prominence and even the repressive authorities had to concede his talent.
He became one of the most well-known illustrators of children's books in China. In 1974 he illustrated
"Two Little Peacocks." In 1976 he designed the animated cartoon of the same book. In 1978, Jiang
began to teach as an Associate Professor at the Yunnan Art Academy, where he would continue until
1983. In 1979, the Chinese Government commissioned him to paint a mural representing Yunnan
Province for the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The project took seven months and used six full
panels of silk. This was the "Stone Forest" mural, one of Jiang's finest works. Jiang himself says: "This
mural was the first time I had ever let my own true style show publicly. The color, energy, and fantasy
of my painting was not appreciated by the government during Mao's Cultural Revolution. While I was
painting "Stone Forest" an official came by and said I shouldn't do it that way. I said "Okay" as if I would
change it. But I didn't change a thing. Later he came back and said "Oh, that's much better." He didn't
know what he was talking about. He was just comforted to think that he, a government official, had
control over this strange, dangerous art."
For Jiang, success followed success. In 1979 he illustrated "The Secret of Jinchun Tree," which won the
first prize as the best illustrated book out of Jiangsu Province. His painting "The Legend of the Water
Sprinkling Festival of the Dai" was featured in the documentary film "Yunnan Scene." In 1980 the
illustrated books "Little Red Riding Hood"; "The Ugly Duckling"; and "A Shi Ma" were published. For "A
Shi Ma" Jiang was awarded Second Place in an international United Nations competition of illustrated
books. In 1981, Jiang's work was featured in the "10 Artists From Yunnan" show in Beijing, and then, in
1982, was prominently featured at a show in Hong Kong, which also featured the Yunnan artists as well
as some of their followers.
But as early as 1981 the Chinese Government had returned to its repressive policies. Government
officials publicly stated that they feared China was losing its "socialist morality" and becoming "morally
polluted." Art officials favored a return to Socialist Realism painting and they expressed their
displeasure by refusing to select paintings by Jiang, Liu Shaohai, or He Neng for the permanent
collection of the National Art Gallery. Jiang was the prime target of their wrath--his paintings were
excluded from television coverage and a seminar was even officially organized to criticize his work. His
work was criticized as "...too daring and audacious...a nightmare." Jiang did have defenders. Liu
Shaohai said that he would be glad to have nightmares every night if he could paint like that. The
President of the Central Academy of Art and Design, Zhang Ding, wrote an article praising Jiang's work
but withdrew it on the eve of its publication at his wife's urging, who remembered how Zhang Ding had
been beaten and publicly humiliated during the Cultural Revolution. Even so, Zhang Ding did on a
number of occasions.
All of this was making life increasingly difficult for Jiang. In 1982 a National Geographic reporter who
was doing a story on China saw Jiang's paintings, and brought some back to the U.S folded up in a
National Geographic magazine.* A friend of the reporter brought them to the Fingerhut Gallery in
Minneapolis, where Jiang's work met with great success. In 1983, Jiang came to the United States as
part of a cultural exchange program with the University of Southern California, where he became a
visiting Professor of Art. *NOTE: We had an opportunity to buy one of the smuggled paintings, but the
party selling it delivered it back to the dealer who sold him the painting becauase he thought it was
damaged due to the folds. My loss and also the person who was to sell it to me, as those smuggled
paintings are now priceless.
Under the sponsorship of Allan Fingerhut, Jiang moved to Minnesota with his wife Zhaolin. For Jiang,
success in America quickly followed. His rich, strong color, and exotic but intimate imagery struck an
immediate response with the American public.
Jiang's talent and uniqueness quickly brought his work to the attention of critics and museum curators
nationwide, and this resulted in many public exhibitions. In 1984, Jiang had an exhibition at the
University of Southern California Gallery; in 1985 at the New England Center of Contemporary Art in
Connecticut; in 1986 at the Portland Museum in Virginia; in 1987 at the Springfield Art Center in Ohio;
in 1988 at the Connecticut College Art Gallery; in 1989 at the Museum at Northwestern University in
Massachusetts; and in 1990-91 at the Everson Museum in New York; the Springfield Art Museum in
Ohio; the Michelson Reeves Museum in Texas; the Valdosta Museum at Valdosta State University in
Georgia; the Art & Cultural Center in Florida; and the Olin Fine Art Center in Pennsylvania. During this
period Jiang also had 52 one-man gallery shows in cities all over the country.
Modern Western influences played a part in the formation of the Yunnan school, but traditional Chinese
art--such as the sculpture from the Han Dynasty (221 B.C.-220 A.D.) played by far the most important
This method, invented by the ancient zen artists more than 1500 years ago, is the precursor of abstract
expressionism. By flicking the paint of the end of the brush the artists could create a totally energized
surface. This is precisely what Jackson Pollock rediscovered in the 1940s and 50s. But the Chinese had
always used this technique, and Jiang uses it masterfully.
But the greatest Chinese influence was the art created in the Dunguang caves in central China. In 1907
European explorers rediscovered the Buddhist caves on the Ancient Silk Road that led from China
through Persia and finally to the West. At Dunghuang, the last caravan stop with a plentiful amount of
water and supplies before travelers from China ventured into theperilous Takla Makan desert, the
explorers discovered a group of more than 400 caves with paintings of extraordinary quality which had
been very well preserved by the dry desert climate. These paintings had been created over a period of
700 years, from roughly 300 to 1000 AD. They were commissioned as devotional acts by pious
Buddhists: warriors, princes, kings, merchants, peoples from all walks of life--created in the spirit as
were the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. But by the 12th century wars and other geopolitical forces caused
the abandonment of the caves, and they lay forgotten until their rediscovery by the Europeans in the
In 1942, a well-known and respected traditional Chinese artist Zhang Daqian led an expedition to the
caves. He spent 2 1/2 years studying and copying the astounding became available to other artists and
scholars it caused great excitement, for just as African and Iberian art and the cave paintings of
Lascaux had inspired and liberated Picasso, so the revelation of the free flowing qualities of line and
form and the rich mythic traditions of the Dunguang cave paintings inspired and liberated the young
Chinese artists. Jiang was particularly moved by the colors, the linear quality, and the mythic stories of
the cave painting--and we see this in his work. Jiang's colors are of unsurpassed richness. A colorist,
Jiang's intention was to reverse the trend of the stale Chinese tradition of painting in gray, black, and
white. Jiang says: "Chinese art had reached a sick level due to its lack of color." Jiang's credo is: "Long
live the Line!" He is a genius at using line to give the illusion of depth to a flat two-dimensional
surface--almost like an x-ray. Jiang's paintings are like cubism: by using superb drawing he creates
transparency, and thus he reveals more than one level of reality in each painting. Jiang is a storyteller.
His paintings are steeped in Buddhist and Chinese mythology. Each figure has a symbolic meaning. The
paintings have so much complexity and visual fascination that the viewer is constantly seeing
something new. Jiang says "For every picture there is a story, and for every story there is a picture."
But above all, the cave art was an indigenous Chinese tradition, a tradition that gave the artists similar
freedoms to those won by the artists in the west, but at the same time it was a tradition that the artists
could freely pursue without fear of being accused of being Anti-Chinese. The traditional mythic themes
and images, and the rhythmic flow of the cave art have found their way over and over again into
paintings of Jiang and the other "Yunnan School" artists.
The influence of the Dunguang imagery and style combined with European Cubist influences, such as
the use of transparent washes of colors to allow for a multileveled view of reality, characterize Jiang's
work to this day.
Jiang's colors are of unsurpassed richness. A colorist, Jiang's intention was to reverse the trend of the
stale Chinese tradition of painting in gray, black, and white. Jiang says: "Chinese art had reached a sick
level due to its lack of color."
Jiang's use of imagery. As noted above, Jiang is a storyteller. His paintings are steeped in Buddhist and
Chinese mythology. Each figure has a symbolic meaning. The paintings have so much complexity and
visual fascination that the viewer is constantly seeing something new. Jiang says "For every picture
there is a story, and for every story there is a picture."
Jiang's vision has continued to grow and expand. Probably because of his personal experience in two
cultures he has increasingly seen the world as a single system, as a meeting place of diverse forces.
This is reflected in the number of environmental and ecologic themes which have recently begun
appearing in his work, notably in such pieces as "Nature Suite," "Genesis," "Lovers Trees," and "My
"An artist is not a photographer; my work is my understanding of life. It is difficult for me to remember
what distances I have traveled, how many mountains I have climbed, how many rivers I have crossed,
and how many villages I have passed through. I can only recall the countless joyous moments and
hardships of the past years from the many pictures I have painted. My deep love of the colorful earth
and for Xishuangbanna, a region of the Yunnan Province, has encouraged me to explore and create
unceasingly. Such a mysterious land blessed with unique beauty offers innumerable subjects to be
painted. My paintings are not only pictures: they are also music and poetry that is bewitching, sweet
dreams that are being dreamed."