RED DAWN I was born in 1967 in Zigong, Sichuan province. That was just after the Cultural Revolution began. I can recall red flags and mass movements. It was dazzling but the more intense things got, the poorer people became. You had to quote Chairman Mao even when you went to buy food. For example, if you wanted a turnip, you’d first say, “Mao Zedong thought for 10,000 years,” and then you could pay for it. Food became scarce and people ate anything. I had an aunt who would fry up cockroaches because there was no meat. Of course, we added Sichuan peppercorns and chilli peppers for flavour. I was nine years old when Mao died. Everyone was outside crying in unison. I thought it was funny and started to laugh. A policeman hit me and said, “Chairman Mao has died and you laugh?” But I wasn’t sure what it all had to do with me. Those times were like North Korea is today. I think Pyongyang must have studied China.
DOTS AND DIY The older brother of a friend of mine used to draw. He mostly drew pictures of Mao and other socialist images. He gave me a join-the-dots Mao portrait when I was six years old. I soon abandoned the dots and started drawing freehand. In primary school we had an art teacher, but he couldn’t really paint. Zigong was a poor place and education was very backward. The best learning you could do was by yourself. When I was eight years old, I’d saved up enough from my Spring Festival lucky money to buy a foreign art book. I learnt about light and perspective from it. In middle school, I spent my whole time painting and drawing because there was nothing else to do. The art teacher threw me out of his class because I contested his ability.