Already by the late 1980s, Zhang Xiaogang had become recognized in mainland China as one of the leading figures of the avant-garde movement. At this time, Zhang's works were dominated by his symbolic-surrealist sensibilities, as he sought to produce works that captured the essence of a native, ethnic Chinese spirit, untrammeled by the effects of history. By the early 1990s, as the breakneck path of modernization took hold, Chinese art took a much more critical edge in response to the rapid social and cultural changes taking place around them. It was at this time that Zhang began his historic Bloodline: The Big Family series. These timeless paintings serve as metaphors for a society that is in constant struggle with its own past, present, and future.
Painted in 1995, Big Family is an exceptional example featuring the complete Chinese family unit. As the series developed, it became more conceptional and stylized. Here, Zhang still allows for the family's individual characteristics--the chunky glasses, the embroidered sweater, the pigtails decorated with flowers--add to the poignancy of the piece. As a reoccurring motif of the family portraits, the central figure is set apart from the rest by its intense, acidic hue of either yellow or red, making the emotional focus of the work the young girl's purity and innocence. The figures of the parents' faces both have light patches of color; the discoloration is often interpreted as a literal depiction of light hitting on the person's face as well as the symbolic representation of emotional scars.
The emphasis on the family unit is indicated by the red line that threads through the bodies of the three figures, showing both the blood relation among the group and the dominant ideology of national collectivism at the time. These jagged "bloodlines" link the figures to each other and to others not present. Their surreal and alarming presence add a foreboding air of gravitas to the work. Devoid of facial expressions, the calm exterior of the figures contradict the painful memories of the past left behind by the political and cultural upheaval of the 1950s and 60s. Zhang has stated, "On the surface the faces in these portraits appear as calm as still water, but underneath there is great emotional turbulence. Within this state of conflict the propagation of obscure and ambiguous destinies is carried on from generation to generation."(Zhang Xiaogang quoted in Umbilical Cord of History, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 2004, p. 12).