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Ange Zhang

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The amazing journey of Ange Zhang

The scene is a little, well, disorienting. On a warm morning late in August, I am sitting in the book-filled back room of a tidy Scarborough bungalow, tucked away on a leafy crescent, chatting with a gently affable theatre designer, cartoon animator, and children’s book illustrator named Ange Zhang. He shows me an intricate scale model of a picturesque cottage – a set he designed for a London, Ontario, production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. He walks me through the process of creating, on his computer, animated backgrounds for Braceface, a TV cartoon about an orthodontically challenged teenage princess.

Then, with equal openness, he tells me about his own teenage years in China during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and how he came to describe what happened during that time, in words and pictures, in his new children’s book, Red Land, Yellow River: A Story from the Cultural Revolution.

The germ of the book, Zhang says, was a conversation with Patsy Aldana, the publisher at Groundwood Books. Over the past 10 years, Aldana has commissioned Zhang to illustrate five children’s books, including 1994’s Thor, by W.D. Valgardson, which won the Mr. Christie’s Book Award. “I was chatting with Patsy one day, and happened to tell her about some of my experiences,” says Zhang. “She called me back later, to see if I was interested in doing a book about it. I was very surprised!”

Red Land, Yellow River focuses on a three-year period in Zhang’s own often-incredible story. In 1966, he was a teenager living with his family in downtown Beijing. His father, Guang-Nian Zhang, was a famous writer, best known for composing the words to “The Yellow River Cantata,” the famous patriotic song-set. Then, in June of that year, Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution, a program of radical reforms to root out counter-revolutionaries.

The program was largely carried out by Mao’s Red Guards, and led to purges, attacks against intellectuals, and general chaos. Zhang’s school was shut down, with many of its students sent into the Red Guards. Meanwhile, his father was blacklisted along with other artists and intellectuals, publicly humiliated at a rally, and later arrested.

“My father had always been sort of my idol,” says Zhang. “When he was punished, my whole world was turned upside down. I was lost, scared. I didn’t know how to react.” Despite his family’s blacklisting, he was eventually allowed into the Red Guards – which he says he joined out of desperation to “be like everyone else” – and had several close calls as the movement became increasingly anarchic. With the situation spinning out of control, the government in 1968 disbanded the Red Guards, sending many of the former members to the countryside for re-education as farmers. Zhang was assigned to the isolated Shanxi Province and told that he would spend the rest of his life as a labourer there. Meanwhile, both of Zhang’s parents were themselves sent to separate labour camps.

Given the seriousness and complexity of his material, Zhang says one of his chief concerns when writing Red Land, Yellow River was to avoid producing a sermon or tract. “I don’t want to tell people how, why, right and wrong, but to show them how I reacted to what happened,” he says, “to portray all the different sad, scary, and happy moments. That way I think people can relate.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the happier moments in the book stem from Zhang’s affinity for art. At one point he sneaks into his father’s book-filled study and escapes into the worlds of Hugo and Dickens. And after his exile to the countryside, he discovers painting. “I was getting through physically,” he says of his re-education. “But I was so empty…. When I started drawing and painting at the village, I finally felt as if my life had a meaning.”

The many beautiful illustrations in Zhang’s book are a testimony to the wisdom of his vocation. His style here, characterized by bold angles and vivid, saturated colours, hints at the feel of old propaganda posters, and seems perfectly calibrated to the surreality of the period he is rendering. Surprisingly, the paintings were created using the same graphics software that Zhang works with in his day job at Nelvana, the TV animation company that produces Braceface. “At first I wanted to do oil paintings, but I had used the computer to do tests of the colours,” he says, gesturing to his machine, where a futuristic spaceship from a new show he’s working on is rotating silently on the screen. “I showed the tests to Patsy, and she liked them. So the medium is digital paint, which saved a lot of time.”

The text was trickier. Zhang had never written for publication before, and the use of English, he says, made it all the more daunting. He spoke to various authors – colleagues of his father – and enlisted his sister, a Chinese/English interpreter who lives in Australia. “And it was edited by Patsy,” he notes, “who had the wonderful idea of adding a history section with photographs at the end to explain the times, to help situate the reader.”

Despite such trappings, Aldana says that the book is not to be seen as pedagogical in purpose. “Children are very interested in the experiences of other people their age, and how they deal with their situations. Seeing the process of being a person who’s forced to join a group, and being pulled away from who he is as a person, it goes way beyond educational uses.” In support of the book, Aldana says, Zhang will be reading at the Calgary and Vancouver writers’ festivals, and making numerous speaking engagements.

Zhang’s book concludes with his discovery, in the village, of painting; his later years could easily make another volume. After he had completed three years of rural re-education, his mother managed to get him transferred to her own camp, centred on a factory that made tiny erasers for the ends of pencils. She located an artist at the camp who was willing to tutor her son in the fundamentals of painting and drawing. “It was hard,” says Zhang of his seven years in the factory, “but in a way I was very, very lucky. I’d found my dream, and I’d found someone to teach it to me.” He says that his father wrote to him regularly, urging him to keep learning.

The studying served him well. When China’s Cultural Revolution was abandoned and relative normalcy was restored, Zhang’s skills landed him a spot at a prestigious art academy, which in turn brought a position as a set designer at the National Opera Theatre in Beijing. His family was reunited, his father rehabilitated and allowed to resume his writing career.

But Chinese politics were to transform Zhang’s life one more time. In 1989, he was serving as a visiting set designer at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta. While he was there, the Tiananmen Square massacre took place in Beijing. In the aftermath, the Canadian government offered asylum to Chinese visitors, and Zhang decided to accept. His wife and young son, Eric, joined him in Alberta a year later. (Zhang’s parents remained in China. His father, who continued writing into old age, died two years ago; in a government-sanctioned ceremony, his ashes were scattered near the headwaters of the Yellow River.)

Now a Canadian citizen, Zhang worked for a time at the Banff Centre, then landed a set design position at the Stratford Festival. Then, in 1996, he came to Toronto to work at Nelvana. “People of my generation sometimes joke that coming to the West was a ‘second re-education,’” he says with his customary rueful smile. “We knew how to survive and adapt from the first time, and it made us strong. And of course the second time around was much, much better.”

Sitting with Zhang in his comfortable study, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his second re-education has gone remarkably well, though he’s still restless about his work. “Right now, I’m planning to take a break from book illustration to focus on paintings,” he says. “I want to do some pure paintings, oil paintings, maybe, to improve myself as an artist.”
He adds that he doubts he’ll be doing any more writing for publication (“it’s not my strength”) and glances respectfully at a large photograph of his father – reading to Eric, his grandson – that hangs above the desk. On the frontispiece of Red Land, Yellow River, there is a similar photograph: Ange himself, aged perhaps four, stands on the left side of the frame, while his father sits on a low stoop to the right, his arm around his son. Their faces are almost at the same level, both looking right at the camera, both smiling.