“I always wanted to be an artist,” Zhu Yiyong reflects. “But back in those days, the ’60s in Chongqing, life was very difficult. It was very hot and we didn’t have air-con. Other kids would just play outside but I always wanted to paint. So I’d wear shorts and a tank top and I’d stay indoors and paint while my friends were running around outdoors.” 

Guided and supported by his art teacher, Zhu continued painting every day into his teenage years. But then disaster struck. “In the early ’70s during the Cultural Revolution, all school art was stopped,” Zhu recalls. “We were very poor and art supplies were almost unaffordable. Luckily my father was working in a hospital and they had these sculptures made from plaster. I borrowed them and used mud to make a copy of that sculpture. Based on that I made drawings and practiced my drawing skills.” 

Life got even harder as Mao’s policies became more extreme and the Red Guards were whipped into frenzy. “I was sent to the countryside for re-education in 1975, when I was 18,” Zhu remembers. “I was in the countryside around Chongqing, but I couldn’t go home very much. I saw my family once a month. The authorities were very strict – I had to apply every time I wanted to leave.” 

But even here, in a small village, years after he’d had his last official art lesson in school, Zhu carried on making art. Knowing that only certain styles of art were acceptable, Zhu began painting pro-Mao murals on walls around the village. He recorded all of these works in a book, which he then sent to the county and town authorities. “I sent it because I thought that if they ever have other things they want painted, they will have me to do it,” Zhu explains.

His gamble paid off. After the Cultural Revolution ground to a halt and universities reopened in 1977, Zhu’s painted propaganda was all around the region and he’d built up a full portfolio of work, which he used to apply to art school. He was in the first cohort of students accepted into Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. 

The teaching was heavily influenced by the art of the Soviet Union, but Zhu quickly developed his own style and graduated as a confident oil painter who specialised in portraits. His most famous series is called Memories of China and features head-and-shoulder portraits of Chinese figures – many of them children – holding up to the viewer a cat’s cradle made of red string. 

These striking works – with the contrast between the muted figures and the crimson cat’s cradle – became famous. So famous, in fact, that art counterfeiters in Hong Kong and China began copying them. Although the series was released several years ago, fakes of the work can still regularly be spotted on roadside stalls and in dodgy malls in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. 

“There are lots of things that are copied in China and I know that my paintings have been copied,” Zhu sighs, sounding resigned to the situation. “One day I was in Beijing and a friend of mine told me that one commercial gallery was selling my work. Initially I went to see the work and I found out it was a fake. So I told the gallery owner, ‘This is a fake, this is a copy. It’s my painting but I didn’t paint it. This is a fake painting.’ And the gallery owner tells me, ‘It’s not a copy because you didn’t sign your name. Since you didn’t sign your name, it’s not a copy. You should be happy about it because I’m promoting your work.’ Of course I was angry but there’s nothing I can do about it. If they sign my name, that’s illegal and then I can sue them. But if they don’t sign the name, then what can I do?” 

Just as in Memories of China, children feature prominently in Zhu’s next major series, The Realm of the Heart. But these innocent-looking kids now appear against a backdrop of thick, soupy smog or an obscured city skyline. Zhu started this series in 2008 as he recovered from a serious illness, which made him despair about the worsening air pollution in China and the effects it was having on people’s health. 

“Our environment is shortening people’s lives because of air pollution,” Zhu explains. “I often visit schools in remote places and kids in those kind of environments are so fresh and energetic. But in the cities there is such an issue with pollution that I can’t help but look at children and think, ‘How will their life be? What’s their future?’” 

Zhu is currently showing the 10 latest works from The Realm of the Heart series at Galerie du Monde in Hong Kong, where he’s created an immersive exhibition that is in many ways a work of art in itself. Zhu positioned and hung the canvases in the space, then spent several days drawing and painting on to the walls around them, turning the gallery into one huge, site-specific work of art. 

Speaking before he started covering the walls, Zhu explains, “This is an experimental project for me, I’ve never done this before. With this exhibition, I want to make the works and the space in the gallery have some kind of relationship. In some of the works and on the walls I’ve included the symbol of the white cloud. The air pollution in China is so bad that you hardly ever see white clouds. So the white cloud creates a bit of distance between the viewer and the work because anyone who knows Chinese cities knows that white clouds don’t exist like that. But it’s also a symbol of hope. And the clouds are like kids – they look pretty but at the same time are very fragile.” 

Zhu Yiyong’s exhibition The Realm of the Heart is on at Galerie du Monde until December 30.