To my darling niece: the private papers of Zhang Daqian
As paintings, calligraphic works and manuscripts by China’s most popular 20th-century artist come to auction, Christie’s specialist Sophia Zhou talks to his grand-niece about the bond he shared with his niece, who lovingly inventoried the collection
The early childhood of Zhang Xinjia, the beloved niece of Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), was nothing short of idyllic. Born in 1928, she grew up in the Garden of the Master of Nets in Suzhou, a sanctuary for artists now listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, learning to paint with her uncle and father, the renowned painter of tigers Zhang Shanzi (1882-1940).
Before Xinjia was 10, however, the idyll was over. As the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Zhang Shanzi gathered his family together and embarked on the long journey west to Chongqing, from where he travelled on to Europe and North America, selling his paintings for the war relief effort.
The gruelling journeys would take a fatal toll on his health. When Zhang Daqian learned of his elder brother’s death in 1940, he was on his way north to study the Buddhist murals in Dunhuang. Grief-stricken, he rushed to Chongqing, and vowed to take care of Xinjia, then 11, and her elder half-sister, Zhang Xinsu.
‘If you’re ever in need, write any time. Uncle will do whatever it takes’ — Zhang Daqian to his nieces Zhang Xinjia and Zhang Xinsu, 1971
Fast-forward to 1979, when Zhang Daqian, now 80, asked Xinjia to leave Shanghai and join him in Taiwan. ‘My niece, I hope you will come as soon as you can. Go to Hong Kong first. From there, it will be easy to enter Taiwan,’ he wrote in delicate calligraphy on the beautiful ink painting, Bird on a Branch, below.
It wasn’t easy, but with the help of her uncle’s politician friends, Xinjia eventually made it, leaving her daughter Duan Duan (also known as Tuen) at boarding school in Hong Kong. Xinjia then spent the next three years with her uncle, archiving his unpublished manuscripts, menus and letters — and works inscribed ‘to my darling niece’.
Four decades later, as Christie’s prepares to auction the largest collection of Zhang’s private writings ever to come to market, Tuen shares her memories of the man she calls ‘Yeye’ (‘Grandpa’) and his bond with her mother.
Sophia Zhou: What is your earliest memory of your grand-uncle?
Tuen: I was very young; it’s one of the earliest of any of my memories. My family was living in Shanghai, and we started receiving the most excellent chocolate: solid blocks of Belgian chocolate sent to us by Yeye. Things like that weren’t available in China; food in general was scarce at the time. So it was wonderful. I still love Belgian chocolate — I won’t touch any other.
SZ: Why was your mother so special to him?
Tuen: Many members of the Zhang family were quiet and reserved. Mom was the opposite: small in stature, but outspoken, fearless and fiercely independent. She loved animals, which was uncommon for a girl of her age: she would play with her father’s pet tiger, even ride on its back. She was also beautiful, smart and charismatic, so she stood out. She won people’s hearts.
Mom has always been interested in lots of things. She was an avid fan of Chinese opera and a foodie before that was a ‘thing’. She loved all kinds of food, from street food to exotic dishes; she would just dive in.
My grand-uncle shared both passions; food was especially important to him. When she was staying with him in Taiwan, they would be driven out in his giant Lincoln Continental Mark IV to the night markets and Mom would get out, go and buy their favourite street food, and bring it back to the Lincoln for them to share.
SZ: What did your mother do after the war?
Tuen: She continued her education, studying geology and archaeology in Shanghai; she continued to read and she continued to paint. As well as being mentored by my grand-uncle, she learned from members of the Dafengtang School of Painting, of which she was also a member.
SZ: How did your family stay in touch while Zhang Daqian was living and travelling abroad between the 1950s and the 1970s?
Tuen: Primarily by telephone — we had a telephone at home, unusually — as well as telegram and mail. Yeye would write us letters and then, after 1966, communicate via emissaries.
Once I had left China in 1979, he got a real ‘kick’ out of my calligraphy. It wasn’t too good, really, but I was the only grandchild outside China who could read and write Chinese, and he loved hearing from me — he always wrote back, albeit much more eloquently.
He wrote to others, too, when his eyesight allowed him to. I remember him being thrilled to communicate with Xie Zhiliu (1910-97) — a long-standing friend he had known since he was young.
SZ: How did he keep the promise he made to your mother and to you and your brother?
Tuen: My grand-uncle felt indebted to my grandparents; he believed he owed his success in large part to my grandfather. So he kept his promise in every way he could. My brother, Duan Jing, grew up with him, living and studying in South America and California, and he always strived to unite us, even when we were apart. That’s why he invited Mom to Taiwan.
SZ: What do you remember of your journey to Hong Kong in 1979, when your mother went to Taiwan?
Tuen: It was a long train trip from Shanghai to Shenzhen, then from Shenzhen to Hong Kong, and I remember it being very quiet. You didn’t want to tell too many people who you were, or what you were doing.
SZ: In the collection, which artworks mean the most to you?
Tuen: Some of the early pieces by Zhang Shanzi have meaning and personal value. For example, an album of flowers and birds after Yao Shou (1423-95) is a rare and brilliant example of my grandfather’s work. But I realise that for Mom and Dad to have such items, they will have had to protect them through dangerous times. They were willing to give their lives for those works.
Zhang Daqian’s Bird on a Branch from 1979 is very personal as well, because the inscription is a letter to Mom, asking her to move to Taiwan.
And the beautiful Pink Lotus painting Yeye gave me on my 20th birthday was a surprise, because I was a bit rebellious. I was always debating with my grand-uncle, about almost anything. I remember a conversation I had with him in Taiwan on my way from Hong Kong to college in the US. He told me that I could be as rebellious as I liked, as long as I got straight A’s.