Zeng Fanzhi, a lifelong servant of the Chinese state, portrays the concept of ‘zero-COVID’ in his art

Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings serve as a powerful reflection of the strict “zero-COVID” controls that China has implemented over the past three years.

The poignant images of a child undergoing a COVID test and residents looking on with frustration and despair as their apartment is sealed off evoke a sense of the impact that these measures have had on the lives of ordinary citizens.

As an 85-year-old retired architect living in Shenzhen, Zeng Fanzhi is uniquely positioned to offer a perspective on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

His close association with the Chinese state, through his work on monuments in Tiananmen Square and coal plants for the Ministry of Coal, gives him a deep understanding of the inner workings of the government and its decision-making processes.

It is important to note that Zeng Fanzhi is not a harsh critic of the measures that have been implemented. This is a significant point, as it demonstrates that his paintings are not intended to be a condemnation of the government’s actions, but rather a reflection of the reality that many individuals have experienced as a result of these measures.

This nuanced approach to his subject matter adds depth and complexity to his work, elevating it beyond mere political commentary.

Zeng’s position as a member of Shenzhen’s state-sponsored artist’s association further underscores his connection to the government. His paintings being featured on stamps and winning prizes also speaks to the recognition and validation of his art by the state.

This context is crucial in understanding the broader implications of his work and the potential impact it may have on public discourse.

The use of art as a means of expressing societal issues is not a new concept. Throughout history, artists have used their work to shed light on the human condition and to provoke thought and discussion.

Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings are a continuation of this tradition, offering a visual representation of the challenges and struggles faced by individuals living under the “zero-COVID” controls.

The fact that Zeng Fanzhi has chosen to commemorate three years of these measures through his art speaks to the lasting impact that they have had on Chinese society.

By capturing the emotional and psychological toll of the pandemic response, Zeng’s paintings serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by individuals in the name of public health and safety.

In conclusion, Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings offer a profound commentary on the “zero-COVID” controls in China. Through his unique perspective as a retired architect with close ties to the state, Zeng provides a nuanced and thought-provoking portrayal of the human experience under these measures.

His art serves as a powerful vehicle for reflection and dialogue, prompting viewers to consider the broader implications of government actions on the lives of its citizens.

As we continue to navigate the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zeng Fanzhi’s work stands as a testament to the enduring power of art to capture the essence of our shared human experience.

The artist’s unique perspective, shaped by their experiences in China, provides a stark contrast to the views of the young protesters.

Having lived through war and revolution in their early years, and witnessing decades of prosperity and growth later on, the artist’s understanding of China’s adherence to “zero-COVID” controls is deeply rooted in their personal history.

From their point of view, these measures were not only necessary but also heroic, as they saw the resilience and determination of the Chinese people in upholding these strict regulations.

This perspective, influenced by a lifetime of experiences, offers a valuable insight into the complexities of the situation, highlighting the diversity of opinions and attitudes towards the government’s handling of the pandemic.

It also serves as a reminder of the importance of considering different viewpoints when discussing such contentious issues, as it can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the topic at hand.

Zeng’s childhood was marked by the upheaval and instability that characterized Chinese history during the mid-20th century. His family’s relocation from city to city in order to escape the Japanese invasion and the subsequent civil war reflected the widespread turmoil and dislocation experienced by many Chinese citizens during this time.

The Communist Party’s victory in 1949 brought a measure of stability to the country, but it also brought about significant changes in the social and political landscape.

Despite his initial aspirations to pursue a career in art, Zeng faced setbacks in the form of two failed attempts to gain entrance to art school.

Undeterred, he ultimately heeded his parents’ advice and embarked on a path of study in architecture, a decision that would ultimately shape the course of his future endeavors.

Soon after, the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong, initiated the Great Leap Forward, a bold yet calamitous initiative aimed at transforming the impoverished nation into an industrial powerhouse.

Tragically, millions succumbed to starvation during this period, while Zeng and numerous other students throughout China dedicated a significant portion of their time to political study sessions.

Upon graduating from college in 1962, Zeng was assigned to work with an architectural team in Beijing, where he contributed to the design of stadiums, theaters surrounding Tiananmen Square, and the Avenue of Heavenly Peace.

Subsequently, Zeng and his wife, who was also an architect, made the decision to relocate to Pingdingshan, home to one of China’s largest coalfields, nestled amidst the country’s mountainous terrain.

Over the course of two decades, they were engaged in the design of coal separation plants, encompassing everything from coal crushers to workers’ dormitories.

As the 1980s dawned, the couple grew increasingly restless. With Mao’s passing and the rise of a new reformist leader, Deng Xiaoping, at the helm, China was undergoing a period of opening up, presenting a wealth of opportunities along its coastal regions. Eager for a change, they fervently sought to be relocated.

Zeng expressed his dissatisfaction with their current situation, feeling that they were not being utilized to their full potential, prompting them to consider leaving their current position.

This sentiment was shared by many college graduates at the time, as opportunities were abundant and in high demand. In search of new prospects, they made the decision to relocate to Shenzhen, an experimental economic zone situated adjacent to Hong Kong in the southern region of China.

The 1990s marked a period of economic transformation in China, with the leaders embracing capitalist ideologies and Shenzhen experiencing rapid development as a result.

Zeng found employment at Shenzhen University, which at the time was situated in the outskirts of the city, surrounded by fields and accessed via muddy roads.

As Shenzhen flourished in the subsequent years, so did Zeng’s family, with millions flocking to the city to work in the burgeoning factories that were exporting goods to international markets.

Zeng and his wife played a pivotal role in the city’s transformation, contributing to the design of numerous apartment buildings and office towers that emerged from the once barren fields.

Their newfound prosperity enabled them to purchase a residence in the heart of the city, while their children pursued education abroad.

Presently, Shenzhen boasts a skyline that rivals that of major global cities such as New York and Tokyo. Reflecting on their journey, Zeng’s wife, Zhao Sirong, acknowledges the challenges they faced as early settlers in a city that was still in its infancy, describing their experience as that of pioneers.

At the age of 80, Zeng made the decision to retire from his career in architecture, allowing him the opportunity to fully immerse himself in his true passion: painting.

Despite his traditional training, Zeng embraced a modern approach to learning his new craft by diligently studying tutorials of master artists online. His artistic style is heavily influenced by socialist realism, a movement he was exposed to during his upbringing in Maoist China.

Zeng draws inspiration from the works of renowned Russian realist painter Ilya Repin, particularly his piece “Barge Haulers on the Volga,” which depicts the arduous labor of 11 men as they drag a barge, their exhaustion evident on their faces.

This unflinching portrayal of the strenuous work and quiet heroism of ordinary individuals in harsh conditions left a lasting impression on Zeng.

Zeng found himself drawn to similar themes in his paintings, with one of his early works, “Life is Not Easy,” portraying a migrant worker selling vegetables in the cold, surrounded by swirling snow.

Despite his wife Zhao’s complaints about his rigorous painting routine, Zeng continues to work tirelessly at his studio every day, even on weekends.

While Zhao wishes he would slow down and act his age, she still supports his craft, believing that regular activity is crucial for preventing mental decline.

As the coronavirus spread, Zeng became fascinated by how it upended daily life, leading him to paint scenes of nurses swabbing residents and children attending online classes.

He and his wife even caught the virus last winter, and while Zhao recovered quickly, Zeng spent weeks recuperating. Despite the historic nature of the pandemic, few depictions of the era exist in China outside official exhibits and state television, due to tightened controls on artistic expression.

Zeng’s artwork serves as commemoration, not criticism, of the sacrifices endured by ordinary people. He and Zhao are grateful for the government benefits they receive, which far exceed what they imagined having in their youth.

Zeng is now working on a series portraying Chinese leader Xi Jinping, hoping to use his art for positive “political promotion” and to capture the greatness of the current era.