Order

Can a sunset painting save your life?

On a summer afternoon in February of this year, an artist from China’s eastern city of Chongqing, Zhang Ziyang, had just completed a sunrise painting.

“I was just getting ready to go to sleep,” he says, looking out at the ocean, where the blue sky had been a constant presence since the beginning of the year.

“It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t wait to wake up.”

After a few minutes of relaxing, Zhang’s phone rang.

It was a journalist from China Television.

“Hello, I have something important to say to you,” he said.

“This is a sunset picture.

It’s not easy to paint, but it’s very beautiful.”

Zhang’s message was a simple one: China’s new President Xi Jinping had just been elected, and the country needed a portrait of the new president.

Zhang was sure he could do it.

“But I’m not a painter,” he recalls.

“My job is to teach people about art.”

A few days earlier, in a similar situation, Zhang had painted a sunset portrait of a young woman in the same building, with the message: “If I had to give my life to paint this picture, I would give it up.”

It had been his dream to do a sunrise portrait, and after a few weeks of research, he had finally found a willing client.

In Beijing, Zhang was greeted by the media as if he had been born a Communist.

“The media are calling me a traitor, a traitor for the Sunflower Movement, and even more of a traitor because I’m a member of the Sun Party,” he remembers.

But his Chinese media bosses did not want to hear about his political views.

He was not even allowed to speak to them.

He says he has never been to Beijing, and was forced to make his own way there by boat, without the support of his Chinese family.

“China is a big country, and when you see someone like me, the media are always asking questions,” he explains.

“So I just keep on painting, painting, and painting.”

When Zhang’s portrait was finally painted, the whole city celebrated.

“Everyone in the city celebrated the sunset portrait,” he tells me.

“People were singing songs, people were dancing, people danced.

It felt like we had a revolution in China.”

But after Zhang finished his portrait, the same day that it was unveiled, a few days later, a woman approached him and asked him what he was doing.

“She said: ‘You’ve become a member, but I don’t know what to do.

What do you want to do?’

I said: I just want to be a sunrise artist, and that’s all,” he recounts.

“That’s when I decided I had no choice.”

A year after Zhang completed his portrait of his beloved wife, her funeral was held in a traditional Chinese manner.

The funeral was attended by thousands of people, including the president, the prime minister, and thousands of officials, including Zhang’s own father.

Zhang told me about the event.

“In a way, I feel sorry for the person who was supposed to bring her to the funeral,” he told me.

He added: “It was a good day for her, for the city, and for me.”

He added that he would continue to work on his sunset portrait for the rest of his life, and his message had not changed: “I want to make a new sunrise portrait every day, even when I’m alive.”