Learning to paint I was born in Longquan village, near Yantai, in Shandong province. It was 1937 and the Japanese had already occupied the peninsula. I didn’t get much of an education and, at the age of 15, I went to Beijing and found employ­ment at the Capital Steel Plant. I apprenticed in casting metal but did all kinds of things, labouring as a carpenter, electrician and stonemason.

By the age of 18, I’d learned how to read and write. During this period I met an artist surnamed Wang. He really impressed me; he had business cards from the USSR and his own studio. He taught me how to paint and encouraged me a lot. I spent every spare moment painting. While my colleagues slept, I painted. I didn’t feel tired – when you are young you have boundless energy. Sometimes I skipped meals altogether and sustained myself on steamed buns.

Artist Zhang Xiaogang on the Cultural Revolution

In 1956, I saw Deng Xiaoping for the first time. He came to inspect our facility with (revolutionary, politician) Liu Shaoqi. I recall my salary went up to six yuan around that time, too, so I was able to go to Wangfujing (a shopping street in Beijing) and buy some good-quality art supplies.

Propaganda pieces In 1957, the anti-rightist campaigns began, aimed at purging certain capitalist-minded Party members. I didn’t really understand the movement; I was just a worker after all. But my unit leader knew I liked to draw and asked me to paint some propaganda pieces criticising certain factions. He was my superior so I obliged.

In 1958, Teacher Hou, of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (in Beijing), got wind of me through my artwork. Chairman Mao wanted more peasants to get educated at university level so I was able to sit the entrance exam, which involved painting. I just painted how I felt, and didn’t think about style or technique. I followed my spirit and that was enough, I was accepted.

Making Mao I decided to major in sculpture as I heard no peasant-worker had ever taken that class before. It was a great time. Qiao Hong, who came from Shanxi, was my classmate and, eventually, my girlfriend, too. We married in 1961. She is a descendant of the Qiao clan, one of China’s earliest banking families.

Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, Deng Lin, was also a classmate of mine; she majored in ink painting. I recall making a sculpture of Mao Zedong and asking her to give it to him. As she lived in Zhongnanhai (the compound in Beijing where China’s top leaders work and live), I thought they were neighbours. But she said the compound was big and she never ran into him. My course lasted six years and I graduated in 1964.

Cultural Revolution In those days the government decided where you went to work and I was sent to Guangzhou. I remember it was really hot; I couldn’t get used to the climate and seldom slept well at night. I was assigned to work at the Research Institute of Arts and Crafts. But when the Cultural Revolution started, the Red Guards closed it down for being bourgeois.

I was an artist with no work bearing my name, which was saddening. But that was the way of things during the Cultural Revolution. I secretly made others at home

I was arrested and afterwards volunteered to go to Yingde (a rural county north of Guangzhou) to pick tea, and to “learn from the countryside”. This was a chaotic time, particularly as my two sons were born then. In 1970, I went to work at the Guangzhou Sculpture Institute. I could make sculptures again but I couldn’t claim ownership of any of them. I was an artist with no work bearing my name, which was saddening. But that was the way of things during the Cultural Revolution. I secretly made others at home.

Giraffes in Shenzhen In 1979, just as “reform and opening-up” was initiated, my family and I were invited to move to Shenzhen. The city in those days was like a building site; there were no public toilets and construction was happening everywhere. The buzz phrase was “Learn from Singapore” and that was really the model city plan­ners were following.

The mayor at the time was keen to get manufacturing going as a founding industry. He turned to me for culture. He had been to many cities in Europe and noted they were all full of public sculptures. But I didn’t want to just memorialise what was happening; sculpture should capture an abstract feeling – just look at sculptures from the Han and Tang periods.

The first sculpture I made for Shenzhen was of two giraffes – a mother nurturing its child, called Fu Ai, which means “to take care of”. It was placed in the Workers’ Cultural Park, the first public gardens in Shenzhen, located near Dongmen, in 1980. The second sculpture I made was of a procession of elephants, which represented people arriving in Shenzhen one after another in a long, steady line.

Deng, in body and spirit I began to make the Deng Xiaoping statue in 1993 in cooperation with other promi­nent artists. It took us 3½ years in total, as I had to get materials from Beijing and Shanghai. There was great demand for a Deng effigy from all Chinese cities but Deng would not permit statues of himself to be erected as he didn’t want to forge a cult of personality.

It was finally placed on Lotus Mountain, in Futian, in 2000. Some people have complained he looks too strong, but I saw him in the 1950s and he really was that way. We shouldn’t judge him by how he looked during his southern tour of 92 as he was already in his 90s. So you could say the statue has a 1950s body but a 1980s spirit.

No seeker of riches At 60, I officially retired, though I continued to paint and sculpt for another 20 years in my own studio. I’m no longer fit enough. The last sculpture I made was a human with a coin for a head because all people think about is money these days. My last painting is of some birds.

Both my sons are grown up and independent. My youngest, Teng Hai, is an interior designer in Kunming. My eldest, Teng Fei, runs a live-music venue in the Overseas Chinese Town, in Shenzhen. He studied in Germany and always liked music, but he’s also a skilled oil painter. I recognised his talent early on. My life remains simple now but I never sought riches, I just enjoyed making art.