Huang Yongyu (黄永玉), now on the brink of his nineties, is a legendary Chinese painter and writer, known for his combustible temper and outspoken manners.
Born in Changde of Hunan Province on August 9, 1924, Huang and his parents moved to China’s scenic Phoenix Town when he was just a few months old. The mountains’ landscape and the town’s water scenery left Huang with many priceless childhood memories, as did the acquaintance with his uncle and famous modern Chinese writer Shen Congwen.
Huang was born into a family with the gentle and introverted father Huang Yushu at its head and the dynamic, straightforward and strong-willed mother Yang Guanghui, a member of Communist Party of China (CPC) amid the Kuomintang ruling (1912-1949). Huang said he mostly resembles his father, but takes after his mother in terms of temper.
The family fell apart in the summer of 1937, when Huang Yushu, incapable of raising his son, sent Huang Yongyu to Xiamen to be under the custody of one of his cousins. Little did they know, this parting would later become a farewell between father and son as endless wars tore the country apart. Huang Yushu died in 1943 before his son was able to say his final goodbyes.
Under his parents’ love and care at the age of 13, Huang grew up with a strong character featuring obvious rebellious streaks to brave the social hardships at the time.
He failed five times to follow his classmates onto the higher grades in Xiamen’s Jimei Middle School, funded by famous philanthropist and educator Tan Kah Kee. Nevertheless, despite his disinterest towards compulsory education, he was much enthralled by the books stored in the 6-storey library of the school, where he found a childhood fairyland. His hobby of reading soon turned into a great influence on his further life.
Two years later, when he was a major offender in a conflict with local children, Huang left school and embraced “real” life. He used to work as a temporary member of staff in a small porcelain kiln in Dehua, Fujian Province, and a painter for the troop stationed in Quanzhou, Fujian Province. At other times, he would sell portraits and paper cuttings for a living.
In Huang’s own words, he was lucky enough to meet the famous monk Hongyi (Li Shutong) in a Quanzhou temple where the naughty boy sneaked up to a magnolia tree to see the beautiful flowers. When Hongyi discovered him, he talked to the boy with a sense of curiosity. Nonetheless, Huang, a boy straight from the vagabond life, responded to him in a rather rude manner, referring to himself as “Laozi,” a vulgar word people used to express their contempt for others. Yet Hongyi listened without any signs of being offended.
The story became a standing joke, signaling Huang’s rebellious adolescence among his friends. But when doing an interview with Sanlian Life Week magazine, Huang refused to recount any more of his childhood experiences other than his single-minded philosophy for living. He said when he once saw a couple quarrel, he was puzzled because he thought they were obviously free from the worries about food. “What else could be bothering them this much?” the boy thought to himself.
Although life was tough on him, Huang did not hold much of a grudge thanks to compassionate predecessors such as Zang Kejia, Tang Tao, Li Hua and his uncle Shen, who provided timely assistance to the homeless young man when he was earning his reality stripes in Shanghai.
Zang, a famous poet, was 20 years Huang’s senior and used to pay Huang handsomely for his woodcut pieces. He even told Huang that all his pieces would be published in the newspaper. Unfortunately, the newspaper actually refused most of his pieces and the remuneration Zang gave to Huang came from his own pocket. Zang never mentioned the issue to Huang.
According to Huang, those earlier mentioned predecessors, including his uncle Shen, reminded him of an unforgettable motto composed of three words, “Love, compassion and gratitude.” Those words have always had a big impact on him, no matter what the circumstances. Huang recalled how when the Cultural Revolution came, he and his uncle Shen met in haste in Phoenix Town. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to talk much, Shen shouted to Huang to“be graceful and magnanimous.” And so he did.
Huang survived the tumultuous times and saw his paintings published in Hong Kong in 1980. Almost during that same decade, his design of the Chinese Zodiac’s Monkey stamp became a coveted collector’s item. A prolific writer, his books -- including “From Seine to Firenze,” “Those sprinkles of melancholy” and “The old men who were older than me” -- often became best-sellers.
Huang’s evolution, both in his personal life and his career, follow closely with that of China going “global” after the adoption of the reform and opening up policies. He spent a long time living abroad to hone his painting skills and was one of the foreign winners of several Italian art awards.
In August of 2013, his first “Complete works of painting” was published and immediately became one of the most expensive collections at 13,800 yuan (US$2,250) for an ordinary hardcover and 128,000 yuan (US$20,935) for a super hardcover. He’s now working on a novel entitled “A wanderer from the carefree river,” which is based on his own experience.
Huang has also been the head of the engraving school with the China National Academy of Painting since August 31, 2010.
Wherever Huang goes, he said his lasting love lies with Phoenix Town. In one poem he wrote, “My blood type is O, which can be infused into those whoever inject it. But my heart, and only my heart, belongs to you, my dear hometown.”