I got acquainted with China at the age of ten when my parents gave me my first Tintin comic strip: "The Blue Lotus". However, I had to wait 30 more years before I could come to China and another 10 years before I eventually met with the character of Chang Chong-Chen, the Chinese friend of Tintin.
This (virtual) encounter happened recently in the town of Qibao which literally means "seven treasures". It has a less known but still valuable eighth treasure: the Memorial of Zhang Chonren, the man who inspired the character of Chang in the "Blue Lotus"
A real Shanghainese
Zhang Chongren was born in 1907 in Qibao, a suburb of Shanghai. He attended the Art School of the Zikawei Jesuit Orphanage (present day Xuxiahui) . As a most talented artist, he was urged to go to Europe and in 1931 he went to study painting and sculpture at the Brussels Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
At that time, the already famous cartoonist Hergé wanted to draw a new episode of "The Adventures of Tintin" to take place in China. He was looking for information on this country. He was introduced to Zhang Chongren who changed the course of his life.
The man who changed Tintin
The political and social situation in China in the early 30's was rather chaotic. Foreigners administered a great number of cities and the leadership of China was constantly in crisis because of the fighting between the warlords and an emerging Republic. Like many other young Chinese at that time (see my article about Feng Zikai), Zhang Chongren was excited by politics and thereby influenced Hergé in that direction. The creator of Tintin was taken in by the rightist and colonialist ideas prevailing at that time.
However Chang gave him a very different picture of his country, such as the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the corruption of white elites in Shanghai foreign settlements and the nefarious opium trade initiated by the westerners. From the relationship between Hergé and Chang emerged a brand new Tintin, focused on defending oppressed people and fighting for noble causes. Zhang Chongren would eventually draw the Chinese parts of the "Blue Lotus" album, even inserting nationalist slogans in it. This album had a strong impact on the child that I was and it still inspires me today on my continuing researches on Chinese history.
A unique destiny
Zhang Chongren came back to Shanghai in 1936 where he became a well-known sculptor. He made classical nudes and statues of ordinary people. When the PRC was founded, he had to cope with the socialist standards. He made a pretty impressive bronze statue of revolutionaries and a bust of Chairman Mao. During the Cultural Revolution though, he was forced to sweep streets. He was finally rehabilitated under Deng Xiaobing and later was made head of Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1981 a unique opportunity was given to him to return to Europe as a guest of the French Government. There, in a most emotional scene, he met again with his old friend Hergé after 35 years of separation. But the most unexpected part of Zhang Chongren life is the last one. He actually spent his last years in France working as an art teacher even sculpting the bust of the French president François Mitterand. A very different character than Chairman Mao indeed!
More than ever, this exceptional man stands for a symbol of cultural and historical links between East and West.
Should you know more about Zhang Chongren, please contact me at email@example.com