Like his contemporaries in the Chinese avant-garde, Zhang Xiaogang was trained in the heavily disciplined Soviet-derived academic style that has dominated Chinese art training since the founding of the People's Republic. At the same time, this first generation of post-Mao artists were heavily influenced by their new knowledge of Western art history, and Zhang in particular was inspired by Gerhard Richter's photo-paintings. Embedded in his background in Western academic and contemporary art, Zhang also sees his works as forwarding long-held values of traditional Chinese aesthetics. For him, the "obfuscation of individual and emphasis on collectivity" are ones that are "nonetheless full of poetic and aesthetic particularity". He has stated, "In terms of technique, I consciously reduce to a minimum the concern with painterly effects such as attention to color and brushstrokes, so that what is left is only a piece of history and life that has been rendered vague and confused, souls struggling one by one under the forces of public standardization, faces bearing expressions smooth as water but full of internal tension, the ambiguous fates of lives lived amidst contradictions passed back and forth among the generations".
For Zhang, the Cultural Revolution is a "psychological state". He is less interested in political or ideological queries, and it is from this position of psychological investigation that he uses portraiture to explore issues of Chinese collectivism, identity, history and memory. "My painterly skills are the vehicle by which I am able to approach the deep abyss in the soul." In this example from the Bloodlines Series, a brother and a sister pose in their school uniforms. The figures have extraordinarily similar features as Zhang carefully eliminates all individual characteristics outside of the younger brother's slight overbite. Gender distinctions can only be found in their hairstyles and attire. Two stray blotches of red hover on the surface of the painting, one on each figure, an effect similar to the damage caused to a photograph that has been worried over and handled over an extended period of time. In representing them as such, Zhang heightens their interconnectedness, and the ambiguousness of their destinies, as they face their fates together.