Interview with Faye Yan Zhang

Born in China and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, artist Faye Yan Zhang feels a responsibility to use the freedom she has in the United State to explore Chinese history in a critical way. Faye spoke to TSR's assistant editor, Molly Touger, about what drives her creations.

What inspires your artwork?
I think what is hard about being an artist in China right now is that there’s government censorship. It’s not as intense as people might imagine but there are lines you can’t cross. I do know about these instances in Chinese history, really traumatic instances, the Cultural Revolution, famine….Chinese people wouldn’t be approved by the government to make a graphic novel or make a critical movie. I’ve moved toward those mediums because I want to find out more. There is space in this country for that creativity, which I can uniquely access. As a Chinese-American, person I have privilege in that way.

Can you give an example?
Portrait of Mao is part of a series that I’ve been working on. The idea is to tell about different representations of Mao in Chinese history and American history (like Andy Warhol). What got me interested was the portrait in Tiananmen Square. They actually replace it every year or couple of years. There’s an artist who repaints it. But they can’t throw [the old ones] away, so they paint it white and put it somewhere.

How do you decide on your medium?
I like working in comics because it lets me tell things about history in a different way. Comics have a history in China.

There was one [comic] called Sanmao about an orphan boy. It’s very dark. “Sanmao” translates into three hairs. The idea is that he’s so malnourished that he only has three hairs on his head. It’s like a dark Peanuts. When the cultural revolution came—when Mao started to tighten restrictions on art and started to use art for propaganda—[Sanmao] went from a malnourished boy on the street to reformed. He joined the Communist party, grew more hair.

Right now I’m focused on documentary and video, using journalistic text and video to tell documentary stories about history and things that are happening in the present. 

I’m working on a new work right now based on my paternal grandmother [who became a doctor] through the barefoot doctor program in China. [Women] became village doctors to get health care to rural communities. When I go back to China I’d like to film. Many of the doctors are still alive. [I think] asking them to do reenactments of some of the procedures they did (not on real people) would be really cool. 

FAYE YAN ZHANG is a graduate of Harvard College with a Bachelor's degree in English and Visual-Environmental Studies (VES). This is a portfolio of work in visual art, video, and writing. To see upcoming work, academic writing samples, or a CV, email

Current works:

  • Collaborating with radical Chinese independent documentary filmmakers on concept design and production for upcoming works.

  • A series of comics and animations as a Fellow residing at the Smithsonian Folkways

  • Making documentaries on Chinese coal mining townsdelivery donkeys, and protests in the United States capitol (separate works).

  • Creating a digital graphic novel about the life of my grandma, who was a barefoot doctor, in rural communist China.

"So long, and thanks for all the fish!"