Song Nan Zhang (1942–) Biography
Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Surname is pronounced "Jung"; born 1942, in Shanghai, China; immigrated to Canada, 1989; nationalized Canadian citizen, 1995; Education: Central Institute of Fine Arts (Beijing, China), undergraduate degree, 1964, graduate degree, 1980; attended École Superieure National des Beaux-Arts (Paris, France), 1984–85. Hobbies and other interests: Cooking, reading, traveling.
Artist, illustrator, and author. Central Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing, China, art professor, 1980–88, deputy director, 1985–87, dean of mural department, 1985–88; Dominion Gallerie/Westmont Gallerie, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, artist, 1988–. Exhibitions: Paintings exhibited throughout the world, including at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; throughout China; Hong Kong; Tokyo, Japan; Paris, France; and Seoul, South Korea.
Chinese Artist Association, Writers' Union of Canada.
Mr. Christie's Book Award, 1993, and Children's Literature Roundtables of Canada honor book, 1994, both for A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night: An Autobiography in Art; Red Cedar Book Award, 1997, for The Children of China: An Artist's Journey.
A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night: An Autobiography in Art, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1993.
Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1994.
The Children of China: An Artist's Journey, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1995.
Cowboy on the Steppes, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1997.
(Reteller) The Ballad of Mulan, Pan Asian Publications (Union City, CA), 1998.
(With son, Hao Yu Zhang) A Time of Golden Dragons, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 2000.
(With Hou Yu Zhang) The Great Voyages of Zheng He, Pan Asian Publications (Union City, CA), 2005.
Works by Zhang have been translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese.
Linda Granfield, reteller, The Legend of the Panda, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1998.
The Man Who Made Parks: The Story of Parkbuilder Frederick Law Olmsted, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1999.
Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet, From Far and Wide: A Canadian Citizenship Scrapbook, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 2000.
Aaron Shepard, reteller, Lady White Snake: A Tale from Chinese Opera, Pan Asian Publications (Union City, CA), 2001.
Deborah Hodge, Emma's Story, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 2003.
Arlene Chan, Awakening the Dragon, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 2004.
Born in China, Song Nan Zhang has since made eastern Canada his home, and has shared his unique cultural heritage with North American readers through his art and his many books for children. While Zhang considers himself to be primarily an oil painter, he has also earned respect as a writer since publishing of his first book for children, the award-winning A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night: An Autobiography in Art. Zhang's straightforward text about growing up in communist China is accompanied by realistic paintings in what a Kirkus Reviews critic called a "classic Communist style."
Having lived through the Japanese occupation of China during World War II as well as the oppression of the Chinese people by communist leader Mao Zedong during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Zhang recalls his experiences during this tumultuous time in a way that has captivated young readers. He and his parents hid in the mountains when the Japanese overran the city of Shanghai. After the end of the war, the family's troubles did not end, Zhang explained, because living under China's new Communist government was also difficult. His father was a patriot, and Zhang tried to remain loyal to the government as well, though it often meant putting his natural artistic gifts aside to work as a laborer. Zhang was fortunate to receive an education in art, and it was his talent for painting portraits of Mao that won him a favored status as a college professor and allowed him to marry and raise his two sons in relative comfort.
Things changed for Zhang in the late 1980s. "When I was still in Beijing as a fine arts professor at the Central Institute of Fine Arts, I was commissioned by the government of China to work on a huge mural in the then-new national library," Zhang recalled to SATA, revealing how esteemed he was by government officials. However, the actions of the repressive Communist regime was becoming intolerable, and the Tianamen Square incident, wherein the Chinese military massacred a number of demonstrating college students, served as a catalyst. While his father remained in China, the artist managed to escape to Montreal, and his wife and two sons followed him two years later.
Establishing himself as a full-time artist, Zhang had no plans to become a children's writer. Then May Cuttler, president of Tundra Books, encouraged him to complete A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night. "I was not sure how many people, especially young ones, would like the book. But I did my utmost to make sure all the historic details are accurate," Zhang recalled to SATA of that first work.
Reviewing A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night, critics were enthusiastic about Zhang's unique autobiography. "Radically innovative, it is remarkably successful," stated Janet McNaughton of the book in her review for Quill & Quire. Noting the book's educational value and the inclusion of a map of China and a timeline of historical events, McNaughton added that Zhang's "wonderful book will make a complex period of Chinese history comprehensible" to younger readers, while Carla Kozak praised Zhang's artwork in School Library Journal by noting that the "vivid, personal, yet oddly detached" writing is complemented by the "emotion" of the illustrations.
Zhang has continued to share his Chinese heritage with young readers. In his book Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation he uses paintings—"a form of universal language," as he told SATA—to relate twelve stories comprising ancient Chinese creation myths. In one story Pangu separates sky from Earth, while other gods create man from clay, shoot down suns to preserve life on earth, and repair the sky following the downpour that caused the Great Flood. The story of a Chinese explorer who made several voyages into the unknown in the 1400s, almost a century before Columbus set sail, is recounted in The Great Voyages of Zheng He, a picture book coauthored by Zhang's son, Hao Yu Zhang. In Booklist Carolyn Phelan cited the book for combining "an interesting story and unusually good illustrations" to present young readers with a little-known aspect of history. The highly detailed illustrations, which make the early years of the Ming dynasty come to life, are "by turns dramatic, monumental, and intimate," according to Margaret A. Chang in School Library Journal.
A similar collaboration between father and son, A Time of Golden Dragons explains the importance of the dragon image in Chinese art over five thousand years. In School Library Journal, Chang praised the Zhangs' text for presenting "solid, accessible, authentic background on the mythical creatures that symbolize China," while in Resource Links a reviewer cited Song Nan Zhang's "arresting illustrations" and the coauthors "fascinating" text as an appropriate celebration of 2000, the only time the Chinese Year of the Dragon and the Western millennium have intersected in 3,000 years.
Several of Zhang's books relate a more personal history. In Cowboy on the Steppes the author/illustrator uses the cowboy myth to draw young readers in to the story of his older brother, Yi Nan Zhang. At age eighteen, Yi Nan was taken from the comfortable family home in Beijing and, on orders of the Chinese government, sent to a Mongolian commune and trained in his assigned livelihood: to raise and herd cattle. In this harsh terrain, keeping away hungry wolves was the ultimate challenge for the novice cowboy during his first months at his new task. The text—inspired by Yi Nan's diary of the experience—"depict[s] young man who … grows to admire and respect the land and people of his new home," according to Canadian Review of Materials contributor Valerie Nielsen. Praising the book as a work "of rare eloquence," Resource Links contributor Theo Heras added that "Zhang's superb illustrations recreate life on the Mongolian steppes vividly." In Booklist Carolyn Phelan wrote that Zhang's work "reveals an episodic tale of births and deaths, respect and generosity, horsemanship and pride."
Zhang's artwork has been praised for its detail, and several critics had compared his work to that of American artist Norman Rockwell. This is an apt description; as Zhang told SATA, "Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell are undoubtedly two of my favorite American artists. They and their works possess something typically [American], as well as universal."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Zhang, Son Nan, A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night: An Autobiography in Art, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1993.
Booklist, January 1, 1994, p. 821; February 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Children of China: An Artist's Journey, p. 931; February 15, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of Cowboy on the Steppes, p. 1006; December 15, 1998, Karen Morgan, review of The Legend of the Panda, p. 753; August, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Man Who Made Parks: The Story of Parkbuilder Frederick Law Olmsted, p. 2061; November 1, 2000, Linda Perkins, review of A Time of Golden Dragons, p. 536; October 15, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Great Voyages of Zheng He, p. 48.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, March, 1994, p. 240.
Junior Bookshelf, June, 1994, p. 111.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1993, review of A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night, p. 1532.
Maclean's, December 11, 2000, review of A Time of Golden Dragons, p. 59.
Publishers Weekly, November 15, 1993, p. 79.
Quill & Quire, January, 1994, Janet McNaughton, review of A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night, p. 36; September, 2000, review of A Time of Golden Dragons, p. 61.
Resource Links, February, 1998, Theo Heras, review of Cowboy on the Steppes, p. 106; October, 2000, review of A Time of Golden Dragons, pp. 12-13.
School Librarian, May, 1995, p. 68.
School Library Journal, May, 1994, Carla Kozak, review of A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night, p. 127; February, 1998, Margaret A. Chang, review of Cowboy on the Steppes, p. 128; October 1999, Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, review of The Man Who Made Parks, p. 143; October, 2000, Margaret A. Chang, review of A Time of Golden Dragons, p. 154; November, 2005, Margaret A. Chang, review of The Great Voyages of Zheng He, p. 173.
Canadian Review of Materials Online, http://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/ (February 27, 1998), Valerie Nielsen, review of Cowboy on the Steppes; (March 30, 2001) review of A Time of Golden Dragons.
Writers Union of Canada Web site, http://www.writersunion.ca/ (May 18, 2006), "Song Nan Zhang."