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June 1, 2024

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A Chinese sculptor became a sensation in Europe, thanks to the Tintin comics

SOMETIMES called the “Rodin of the Orient,” Xujiahui-born sculptor Zhang Chongren became famous in Europe because of his friendship with Hergé, the Belgian creator of the celebrated comic series “The Adventures of Tintin.”

The two met when Zhang (1907-98) was an art student in Brussels, and Zhang later served as the inspiration for Chang Chong-Chen, a recurring character in Tintin stories.

Zhang inspired Hergé’s 1935 “The Blue Lotus,” the fifth Tintin volume. It tells the story of the young Belgian reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy who travel to China during the 1931 Japanese invasion and uncover Japanese spies and a drug-smuggling ring. This volume first introduced the fictional Chang, a young orphan saved from drowning by Tintin.

Apart from his close association with the Tintin series, Zhang was a distinguished figure in contemporary Chinese art in his own right. He produced works of sculpture, and oil and watercolor paintings.

His works, including statues of former French President François Mitterrand and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, earned him the reputation as one of the founders of modern Chinese sculpture.

Born in 1907 in Xujiahui, Zhang was immersed in art from a young age. His father was a skilled woodcarver and his mother an expert in embroidery.

His artistic talent was evident early on. A memorable incident in primary school left a lasting mark on him. He won first place in a drawing competition, but a gust of wind mixed up the certificates of merit and he mistakenly was awarded the second-place prize.

This event profoundly shaped his perspective on life and art, suggesting a predestined challenge where achievements might not always be recognized as they should be.

In 1921, Zhang began his formal training in arts at Tushanwan Orphanage’s printing house, where he learned photographic plate-making while studying drawing and French in his spare time. This foundational period was crucial for his development as an artist.

In 1931, Zhang ventured alone to Marseille in France, and subsequently enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium under the tutelage of Alfred Bastien. There he excelled, achieving top honors in various disciplines, including landscape oil painting, animal anatomy and perspective, while also earning high marks in human anatomy and composition.

His encounter in 1934 with cartoonist Hergé changed his life. Zhang not only influenced some of Hergé’s work but also provided the Belgian with invaluable insight into Chinese culture.

This collaboration sparked a lifelong friendship, deeply enriching the Tintin series with authentic Chinese elements and helping to forge a lasting cultural link between East and West.

The first time they met, the two clicked instantly. Hergé invited Zhang into his home, where for several weeks he listened intently to Zhang’s stories about China — its history, philosophy, literature and art.

Zhang also introduced Hergé to Chinese watercolor painting. Hergé admitted that he, like many Europeans, had a very limited understanding of China, stereotyping the Chinese as still wearing long braids, eating birds’ nests and disposing of baby girls in rivers.

Under Zhang’s influence, Hergé’s misconceptions were dispelled. In “The Blue Lotus,” the character Chang, modeled after Zhang, became Tintin’s noble and courageous friend. Zhang’s own calligraphy adorned the pages, with phrases like “Down with Japanese Imperialism,” turning the comic into a tool for exposing Japanese war crimes and rallying international support during a turbulent period in China’s history.

In 1936, Zhang returned to his war-torn homeland. He witnessed the harrowing plight of families torn apart by war.

Moved by the suffering around him, he created the oil painting “The Remnants” in 1937. The painting is a vivid close-up of an old farmer, displaced and aimlessly fleeing with his belongings on his back, while in the background, his village burns under the onslaught of war. This poignant piece encapsulated the raw emotion and tragedy of the times.

In 1981, after decades of separation, Zhang and Hergé were reunited. Throngs of reporters gathered at the airport in Belgium to greet Zhang’s return.

The two then septuagenarians embraced, tears in their eyes. The reunion reignited interest in “The Blue Lotus,” and many Europeans traveled from around the continent to see the real Chang. It was only then that Zhang realized how famous he had become in Europe.

In 1983, Hergé died. Two years later, Zhang was invited by the French Ministry of Culture to lecture in France, where he settled and devoted himself to sculpture.

In late 1997, at a banquet, the artist happily shared his plans to return to Shanghai and live out his life in his beloved homeland. However, just as his dream was about to be realized, Zhang died in France on October 8, 1998.


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