Adapting classical Western techniques to express a sensibility that is uniquely Chinese, Zhang's convincing portraits that were inspired by old photographs faithfully express the mentality and emotional state of China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
Painted in 2004, Sailor is an extension of Zhang's famous Bloodline and Amnesia and Memory series, the painting combines the subtle emotional anguish and the faded memories of a turbulent past with Zhang's slightly muted Surrealist sensibilities. Zhang's attention for this painting shifts from a historical viewpoint to a concentration the psychological and artistic language.
Compared to Zhang's earlier figures, the body of the sailor boy is less concrete and flat, giving him more of an ethereal entity. The outline of the face and body, as well as the features, is suggested by the subtle blend of various tones of grey. The occasional insertions of yellow, red, green, and fuchsia in the figures are no longer present in the painting; rather, the palette is replaced by a monochromatic hue adds to the haunting, elegiac mood. One of the few traceable hints of color is the muted yellow patch seen on the right side of the face, which translates literally to the aging of the photograph. Barely visible, the faint red line threads in and out of the boy and extends beyond the canvas, communicating a sense of disconnect with society as well as an estrangement from the idea of "a family unit" or a collective family that was so heavily emphasized in the earlier works.
In Bloodline Series: Sailor, the pupils are enhanced by a slight touch of white highlights, producing a glistening effect that resembles tears forming around the edges of the eye. While the melancholic gaze is directed toward the left, it lacks focus and clarity, articulating the tumultuous events in China's recent history that shattered the spirit of a nation. Zhang dresses the boy in a sailor's uniform, alluding to the often pre-determined social role individuals felt born into, but as the figure's age is indeterminate, the effect is also one of playing dress up. With an utter efficiency of means and his exceptional technical abilities, Zhang produces a metaphor for contemporary China - one that is aspirational, nostalgic, and tragic all at once.