Her battle to save husband from executioner lost, Chinese mother backs artist son
Zhang Jing suddenly became a widow and single mother last September when her husband Xia Junfeng was executed amid controversy for killing two urban management officers in 2009. Having lost a 461/27-year battle to save her husband, she said all she cared about now was their 13-year old son, Qiangqiang, an aspiring painter who is holding his first “overseas” exhibition in Hong Kong.
Last week, “Me and My Mum, Only the Two of Us” – Qiangqiang’s seventh exhibition and his first outside the mainland – opened at the Centre for Community Cultural Development in Shek Kip Mei. His artistic talent came to light following the wide media attention to Xia’s case.
Zhang had cautiously kept her son’s first trip to Hong Kong a secret until they arrived in the SAR. Her campaign to save her husband’s life made her an internet celebrity, with more than 100,000 followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), and therefore a sensitive figure to the authorities. Yet, she is no longer as vocal about her own grievances or social injustice.
“Now all I want is to be left in peace with my son,” she said.
It is for that reason that they moved to Beijing three months ago after spending the Lunar New Year at home in Shenyang , Liaoning province. “I didn’t expect to leave home and become another ‘Beijing Wanderer’ at the age of 40,” she said. But the change of environment has helped Qiangqiang cope with the loss of his father, and the capital also provides greater opportunities to study art.
Qiangqiang showed an interest in drawing at an early age, but it was only later that his parents realised their son’s talent. Zhang said they had considered his artistic activity a costly hobby. As their son won more awards, they felt more financially burdened.
Xia and Zhang became hawkers selling roasted sausages in Shenyang, which made more money than their ordinary jobs. On the morning of May 16, 2009, the couple were confronted by urban management officers – or chengguan as they are know colloquially – whose job is to keep beggars and hawkers off the streets, often with such violence that many of their targets are injured or killed.
The officers took Xia to their office and beat him. Xia fought back with a knife used to cut sausages, killing two and wounding a third. He pleaded self-defence but was subsequently convicted of intentional homicide and received a suspended death sentence, arousing intense controversy.
Xia was sentenced to death for the killings, and an appeal was rejected in 2011. But, following the public outcry, the Supreme Court promised to carry out a comprehensive review of his case. There was no word from the judiciary for 28 months, raising supporters’ hopes that Xia’s death sentence would be commuted. But, on September 25 last year, the Shenyang Intermediate Court announced that it had carried out Xia’s execution, a move that was endorsed by the Supreme Court but caused an outpouring of grief and anger across the country.
“Honestly, such incidents happen more often than people hear on the mainland. Were it not for Zhang Jing’s efforts, no one would even know,” said Jessica Yeung Wai-yee, associate professor at Baptist University and one of the exhibition’s organisers.
Qiangqiang’s paintings form “a consistent world in blue and yellow”, one in which the mother is always pretty and sweet and the father, when present, loving and protective, Yeung said.
Augustine Mok Chiu-yu, the centre’s chief executive, said he felt “a moral obligation” to make the exhibition possible so that Qiangqiang’s artworks could be seen by more people.
Twenty out of the 70 strong paintings and drawings brought to Hong Kong were sold within two days. Zhang said it was the first time her son’s works were priced and available for sale while on view, sounding almost ashamed. “We have been reluctant to let any piece go; but the cost of living in Beijing is so much higher [than in Shenyang],” she said.
Zhang has not had a full-time job since moving to Beijing, as she has been occupied with getting her son settled in a school – a difficult task for anyone without a Beijing hukou, or household registration that affords the same privileges and services available to local residents. She is also careful not to let the school learn of their story for fear of attracting trouble.
But it has been worth the trouble, she say, to see Qiangqiang growing more happy by the day.
“I couldn’t dream of this before,” she said. Even though he appeared quiet in front of a large crowd, Qiangqiang seemed genuinely cheerful during his brief stay in Hong Kong, which included visits to artists’ studios as well as Disneyland.
Qiangqiang said his biggest plan for this summer is to paint in Songzhuang, Beijing’s largest artist quarter. He hopes to attend the Central Academy of Fine Arts – the sooner the better so he “can be spared math classes”, his least favourite subject. With only a secondary school education herself, Zhang said she cannot help her son much with his homework. “Nor with art,” she said. When Qiangqiang paints, she is at his service, “but I still can’t tell apart all the different kinds of blues when he asks me to pass a tube of paint”.
Zhang says that she asks her son to make her look more pretty in his paintings, he agrees in return for more favours. But when Qiangqiang is asked which is the most beautiful piece at the exhibition, he grins and shyly points to his mum sitting next to him.
The exhibition runs until May 20 at the Centre for Community Cultural Development at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, Shek Kip Mei.