My Friend Zhang Lin Hai
Source:Artintern Author:J. D. Zhang Date: 2008-07-10 Size:
Towards the end of 2004, Zhang Lin Hai came to Handan. He gave me a catalogue of his works. Having read it, I felt that I had metamorphosed out of my cocoon and soared into the various corners of the universe. I was able to sense that he had gone through certain times of great difficulty. Only a sou

Towards the end of 2004, Zhang Lin Hai came to Handan. He gave me a catalogue of his works. Having read it, I felt that I had metamorphosed out of my cocoon and soared into the various corners of the universe. I was able to sense that he had gone through certain times of great difficulty. Only a soul that had been sifted and smelted could attain such artistic achievement of fine detail and wonderment. Or should I say, his inclinations have subtly revealed his state of mind. Lin Hai’s paintings are images of his own self. We call these paintings – a dialog with no hostility, preservation of dreams, physical escalation of thoughts and exclamation, the knocking on the door of spiritual wonderment, miracle of poetry, music scores of the holy gospel choir and the flight of mental imagery… The scenes of his paintings are born from his heart, superceding the truth of both nature and reality, thus reaching a mystery and depth that is seldom seen in modern Chinese oil painting. It was said that: “Art is illusion plus ‘deceit’.” It is exactly because of this reason that I regard Lin Hai as a genuine artist in the strictest sense.

Zhang Lin Hai was born in Shanghai and raised in She County. He roamed the city of Handan and received his education in Beijing and Tianjin. His first solo exhibition held in Shanghai gained success. His track of life then became legendary.

I first met Lin Hai in the early Spring of 1980. At that time, Shi Guo Liang who was attending the Central Academy of Fine Arts came to see me in Handan with a letter of introduction written by Mr. Xie Zhi Gao, wishing to go to the mountain area to sketch. Since I had worked in She County, I was asked to choose the location. The surrounding area of Wang Jin Zhuang in She County offered beautiful mountain dwellings where the villagers were honest, simple, and full of character. In addition, one of my students Hou Bao Tai was the secretary in charge of the local commune, so he took care of our room and board. In this manner, Li Nai Zhou and I accompanied Shi Guo Liang to Wang Jin Zhuang. When Zhang Lin Hai of Zhang Jia Zhuang heard about this, he indicated that he wanted to go painting with us. A handsome young lad, yet handicapped with a crippled leg, we thought, could he walk? Nevertheless, Lin Hai said: “I am able to walk just like you!” So he assumed the role of being our local guide, and following the requests of Shi Guo Liang, we covered a good number of mountain villages. I still recall that there were periods when Lin Hai and I spent days together, just the two of us, in Wang Jin Zhuang. We even spent some time under the hospitality of his relatives. Since then, I haven’t seen any of these folks and as I come to think of it, I should be ashamed of myself.

Slowly, I picked up bits and pieces of information about Lin Hai. I learned that he was adopted from an orphanage in Shanghai and that his adoptive parents had been very kind to him. Although living in the mountains, his father was a man of letters while his mother, a sincere chubby lady, skillful in handicrafts, was able to make extra financial contribution to the household. Behind every successful person, there are always understanding parents who taught their children well. Lin Hai owes his success to his parents who were willing to give him all that they had. His father had taught in school and became a village executive. His mother’s family was land owners. Both were sent to correctional institutions during the revolution. The Cultural Revolution, in the name of the people, had caused major catastrophe to many. Even a small mountain village could not escape such fate, including the young mind of Zhang Lin Hai, who could not help but witness the cutting cruelty of human persecution. Since childhood he has been weak and plagued with illness. In order to seek medical aid, his parents carried him from Handan to Beijing and tried every mean, yet they never blamed destiny. Who would have thought that a four year old child would ask his parents to take him to the capital to see a doctor? We should know that this is his lust for life! Lin Hai survived his brush with death, only to be left with a crippled leg.

Lin Hai was merely 17 when we were at Wang Jin Zhuang. I remember distinctly that two girls admired him fondly. Their eyes beamed brightly whenever Lin Hai’s name was mentioned. Yet Lin Hai kept his emotions to himself and gave no response. It was to my surprise that he could remain so aloof, quite unlike a typical 17 year old! When I mentioned this incident to him twenty odd years later, he laughed and said: “You still remember that? I could hardly support myself back then, not to mention dating. All I wanted was to get out of this mountain village.” Now that he has excelled through haste and noise, displayed self discipline when faced with temptation, endured loneliness, acquired truth, made peace with himself and diligently seeked progress; it is a matter of course that he has been well guided by his ever resistance to temptation.

Later on, I returned to Handan and Lin Hai came as well. At that time, the Masses Art Museum frequently held art classes, where students could come and go as they pleased. Quite quickly Lin Hai mixed with the other youths including Fang Li Jun, Wang Zhi Ping, Wang Wen Sheng, Wang Chen Jian, Fu Wei etc... They often took sketching field-trips together, and sometimes they would draw maps and paint murals for people in order to earn some pocket money. Even though they had to sleep rough and hardly had anything to eat, their horizons were broadened. Lin Hai was always a people’s person and was ever popular among the boys and girls of his own age. I suppose it has to do with his honest and upright nature.

Later, he moved on to Beijing where he met Xu Bing at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Xu being an in-depth thinker and a multi-talented artist, did actually cast decisive influences towards Lin Hai’s future development and career choice, enabling him to reach real enlightenment in terms of his way of thinking as well as technique.

Post 1982 were the years of university challenges for Lin Hai. Every time I saw him, he would reveal to me his determination on his weathered face. Every now and then you could hear him scoff at his setbacks while you could sense the indescribable bitterness underneath. In 1986 he applied for the entry into the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. With his excellent qualifications there should have been no problem for Lin Hai, and yet due to a mistake arising out of chance circumstances at the admission office, he ran into a serious road block. Mr. Xu Bing came to his rescue just in time to have him admitted. While at university, I am certain that he maintained his solitude, pride and calmness; and nevertheless strengthened himself through exploration and contemplation.


Graduation came easily, yet the college certificate did not really ease his way, with no institutions offering him a job. How was he going to make a living? The ideal mansion that he had planned to build seemed to have tumbled and he was again drifting into a sea of agony where no shore could be reached. He was experiencing the cruelty and helplessness of reality and tasted the bitter fruit of life. He decided to remain in Tianjin. His early matured mentality locked horns with the average conventional way of life, causing the formation of his inner tension.

While Lin Hai was down and out, he developed a strong desire to have his bad leg fixed so he could reach for higher aims. Unfortunately, he encountered yet another failure in life with an unsuccessful surgery. As a result, his health was further damaged, and with his extremely weak body he reached a point of utter despair. He then began to question the meaning of life and he came to realise the message behind Shi Tie Sheng’s words: “…..whereas there’s no pure land on earth, where could you go with a pair of good legs?!” A real man must take action within his destiny and breathe within his destiny. Compared to a healthy body, a healthy mind is far more precious. Being weak in physical strength actually expands and strengthens one’s mental power. It was during this period that his Sound of Heaven series and Preaching of Buddha were created, while the latter won a Gold prize in the National Youth Engravings Exhibition.

As far as engraving art is concerned, Lin Hai has instigated an amazing novelty. Although he is an engraving specialist, somehow he did not follow the models of any of the well known masters, and instead turned to creating oil paintings. Thoreau once said: “It’s a good thing if you have something to follow, but it’s not necessary a bad thing if you have nothing to follow. Two precious things derive when you don’t follow – an unhesitating freedom of the mind and a progressive spirit to create new life.” When a person does not adopt the route laid down by his predecessors, his life depends on his own wisdom, thus allowing the person to find himself. This independent freedom of the mind became Lin Hai’s spiritual garden. The purpose of his life relied on his own personal liberation without having to depend on any outside influence. He knew clearly what to change and what not to change; what to do and what not to do. He used his soul, his blood and his tears to cultivate an art world that he called his own. He did not curse the darkness. Instead, he wanted to illuminate brightly. His paintings are an extension of the soul and a dreamer’s venture. Painting became his “Noah’s Ark”; not only did it become a redeemer of morality but also an exodus for desires. Painting became the only method of the salvation for his broken spirit; a necessity for him to flee from his despair. He was saving himself, rather than consoling himself with his creations. The lonelier he felt, the more liberated his works turned out to be. He transferred all sorts of pain into a motivational force for the creation of art. In his works, he demonstrated that he was totally unbound by any tradition, be it of life or of art form. In comparison, while many other artists possessed technical skill, they lacked in humanistic accomplishments. Technical skills belong to the external component, like a piece of equipment, a tool, a measurable knowledge. It is necessary for technical skills to gain access to the essence of humanity in order to achieve an ultimate concern for mankind. Lin Hai did it. We can feel intense metaphysical connotations in his paintings.

Lin Hai’s encounters in life resemble a maze that is filled with perplexity and bitterness. Nobody could tell him where his “exit” could be found. Fortunately his luck finally changed from worst to better as the god of fortune quietly descended upon him. His association with Stanley Gallery and his acquaintance with the founder of Schoeni Art Gallery possess a mysterious legendary force. Unbelievably, it is truly a world that transcends words, a world of charade.

In 2000, the Zhang Lin Hai Oil Painting Exhibition was hosted in Shanghai with huge success, and he even had his exhibition catalogue published. Shanghai, the city where he was born! After 37 years, he finally returned home for his personal renaissance, showing the world what destiny was all about. This reminds me of the Chinese proverb: “When Providence has planned to grant great responsibilities to a certain person, he will first throw bitterness at him and then starve him to strengthen his will power…” Whereas disasters can cultivate a great soul, why is it that we should not think about what caused these disasters? Those absurd years of being maneuvered by the evil spirit turned everything upside down. Shouldn’t these instigators be held responsible for their actions? How Lin Hai wanted to share his joy and success with his biological parents! He said he visited the birthplace which he vaguely remembered. I guess he must have felt great excitement mixed with high hopes. A voice inside him must have been screaming: “Father, mother, I have returned, where are you? ...” However, there was not a single trace of their whereabouts. Painful yearning combined with his hopeless cries must have caused him major misery, and the only thing left for him to do would be to meet them in his dreams.

After settling his emotions, Lin Hai went back to Tianjin, to She County to pay tribute to his adoptive parents who have raised him. The deep sense of longing and helplessness of reality penetrates the heart and moves one to tears. I often say to myself, it is not easy to be a noble person! In the summer of 2004, Lin Hai called to inform me that his dad had passed away, and at about the same time, the same happened to a friend of his who has been a great collaborating partner. Is it true that misfortunes never come singly? Life is a journey, a crossing, with life on one bank and death on the other, two extremes that apply to every one of us. The only difference is what transpires during the each individual’s journey. I suppose this was what his Crossing series implied! When his father completed his journey, he was forever gone. Lin Hai relocated his mother to retire comfortably in Tianjin while he spent time in his studio in Beijing to pursue his artistic creations diligently.

Past incidents are like clouds, dreams or smoke, and with the passage of time, pain turns into a colorful mosaic of life experiences which subsequently consolidate into a massive energy filled with imagination and yearning. The burning passion is one’s soul, mad inspirations, calmness and coolness, grace of the broad-minded; all constitute to the humanistic charisma in Zhang Lin Hai’s oil paintings. He never possessed blind optimism. All he did was to follow an attitude knowing that the path would not be easy. He bravely marched through a reality which is interwoven with beauty and ugliness, developing his talent and his wisdom from all his experiences. “I stand alone with pride, I live alone with ease, I hold hand with righteousness, I have no spouse or followers” (Dong Fang Shuo from Han Dynasty). That is Zhang Lin Hai taking flight amidst a sea of chaos towards the light. He has shown the world: I am the way, the truth, the life.

To conclude, I quote the poetry of Zeng Guo Fan: “Even though bright heaven shines upon a million flowers, our hearts know which tall mountain and running stream to pay our respects.”

By J. D. Zhang

This article was previously published in the “Handan Cultural Magazine”. Writer, renowned artist and ex- chairman of the Chinese Artists’ Association Handan Branch - a former teacher and friend of Zhang Lin Hai.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo