I was born in Mongolia. My parents went there because of the Cultural Revolution. When I was [a year old], we moved to Beijing and that's where I grew up, in a typical hutong near Tiananmen Square. Everyone was simple. Every family had one bicycle. It was the most important thing, the bicycle. Nobody had a watch.
When we were kids we would paint a watch on our wrists for fun. But when China started opening up, products and ideas began coming in from other countries.
My earliest memories about photography are probably the same as most Chinese of my generation: we took photos at Tiananmen Square. These are important photos. The necklace I'm wearing at the moment features Tiananmen Square. I designed [the necklace] and found some guys in Guangzhou to make it.
I decided to study art because I belong to the generation that came after the Cultural Revolution. My parents lost their dreams and their jobs, so they gave their dreams to the next generation. I started painting and singing when I was two years old. They discovered I was visually talented, so I continued painting. I then turned to graphic design and started researching architecture.
To be a painter, you shouldn't spend a lot of time learning from a teacher. You should paint by yourself at home and find your own style. I had been studying painting from the age of two so when I went to college, I chose another major. I've always been interested in people, in human beings, in their faces and their shapes. I wanted a career that would allow me to interact with people, so I chose photography. In art school, there was so much freedom. I had a boyfriend and I was a housewife, cooking for him.
I did my first professional photographs for Vision magazine in 2003 and 2004. I did a lot of post-production work on the pictures and people were shocked. They didn't think I was a photographer, but artists didn't see me as an artist [either] because I was shooting for a fashion magazine. Even today, very traditional Chinese don't see me as a photographer – they really don't like the retouching. But I just think they cannot find the words to describe my particular visual style. Still, my blog has been read 10 million times; I have a lot of fans who are young photographers.
I continued to shoot for Vision until 2007. Trends in fashion changed and they stopped using a lot of graphics in post-production. My generation initially didn't have much choice when it came to fashion, but when the country opened up, imported brands came in. A lot of people went crazy about shopping, but I'm not that type of girl. I developed my own style.
My career has had three stages. At Vision, I mainly focused on technique. Then I connected with the fashion industry and began to work with celebrities. During this time I explored how to use Chinese culture in a modern way. At the moment I'm applying Chinese philosophy to my visuals, such as in the 'Love and Water' collection I recently did for MAC Cosmetics. Chinese culture and history are the software, and current Western culture is hardware.
The concept for the collection came from the Chinese idea that the sky and land are connected. Love is a feeling and water is something tangible. This combination makes life. Water circulates on the Earth. It flows from rivers to oceans and people drink it. It's a cycle. In the collection, love is pink and is used to represent Western culture while water is blue and represents Chinese culture. There is a feeling of East meeting West, old meeting new, historical fashion meeting modern fashion. I'm expressing the current state of things: we're all the same, we're all together.
Each photo and each shoot are different. It depends on the circumstances. Sometimes it depends on the make-up or if I see something and I'm inspired. There's no standard process.
I'm a mum. I have two kids … I'm a traditional woman. I'm really not a stereotypical artist, with all the smoking, sleeping late and drinking. I work hard to achieve a balance between my career and my family, but I don't think I'm good at getting that balance.
The difference between fashion photography and my exhibition work goes back to the third stage of my career. It's about using traditional Chinese philosophy and Taoist and Buddhist concepts to explore visual ideas in a modern way. I'm not Buddhist but some of the concepts appeal to me