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From Famous Movie Actress to Painter and Calligrapher
In the 1970s and 80s, Zhang Jinling was a famous movie actress of the Beijing Film Studio and played leading roles in many excellent Chinese films including Reconnaissance Across the Yangtze River, From Slave to General, and Xu Mao and His Daughters. Zhang was known as one of the Three Flowers of the Beijing Film Studio, along with actresses Liu Xiaoqing and Li Xiuming. In the mid-1980s, Zhang Jinling left her movie career and began to study traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting.

One sunny Sunday, I met Zhang Jinling at her apartment near the Asian Games Village in Beijing. We sipped tea and chatted in the simply and tastefully furnished sitting room. Zhang is modest, amiable, and honest, and her graceful appearance remains unchanged.

Zhang Jinling studies traditional Chinese painting under Mr. Lou Shibai, a great master of the art. She began with paintings of shrimp, and she practiced arduously, always handing in her assignments on time. One day, as she was on the way to Lou's house, a heavy rain suddenly came and Zhang's clothes were drenched. To protect the exercises, she held them to her bosom.

Lou was moved by her sincerity. "There is no need to hand in the exercises on rainy days," he told her.

"I should treasure every opportunity for learning, regardless of the weather," said Zhang.

Zhang Jinling practiced drawing shrimp for three years. "You should try painting other things," Lou told her.

"Basic training is important to me," said Zhang. "I'll change to other subjects when you, my teacher, think that I have a solid mastery of basic skills."

Zhang has modestly and perseveringly strived to make greater and greater progress for more than ten years, and she has mastered the painting techniques of the artistic school of Qi Baishi, a great master of traditional Chinese painting.

I asked Zhang how she started her career in painting and calligraphy. In the mid-1980s, she told me, when her acting career was at its peak, she gave birth to a son and stopped acting to take care of him. When the boy was five years old, she took him to a teacher to learn calligraphy and painting, and she always went with him to enhance his enthusiasm. Gradually, she developed a strong interest in calligraphy and painting. Her husband noticed this and brought her to Lou Shibai.

Lou gave Zhang one of his most important instructions in 1990, just before a grand ceremony in his honor at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. "Studying painting is not an easy undertaking," he told her. "You should endure the loneliness and keep your mind on learning."

After years of effort, Zhang Jinling has mastered the basic skills of traditional Chinese painting. She draws a wide range of subjects and especially looks for new ways to draw people, flowers, and birds. She paints lotuses with simple brush strokes and rich, light colors, and she is now starting on a painting called One Hundred Lotuses.

What Zhang Jinling seeks in her artistic career is not fame and wealth but pleasure, and what she values most in life is her family. Her son is now 18 years old, 1.8 meters tall, handsome, and intelligent. He is studying business administration at York University in Canada, but it seems that he has inherited his mother's special genes. He likes acting and often performs in plays at the college. He mails his stage photos to his mother.

Zhang Jinling says her husband is a good teacher and a helpful friend. When she was at the height of her acting career, he cautioned her to remain indifferent to fame or failure and to show high ideals by simple living. Now that Zhang has taken up painting, he hopes that she will have a serene, peaceful life. "I have a happy family," says Zhang.

(China Pictorial February 21, 2003)

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