ChinaUS EUROPEASIA 中文双语Français

Painting pictures through the pain

By Sun Ruisheng in Tai Yuan and Li Yang in Beijing | China Daily | Updated: 2017-03-31 07:56

Artist who has been bedridden for 30 years finds solace in her work

With her withered limbs and meager muscles, Zhang Junli looks more like a sickly teenager than a 39-year-old.

She has chronic infectious arthritis, an uncommon condition that had paralyzed her by the time she was 9.

For the past three decades she has been bedridden, but despite being barely able to lift a paintbrush, she has spent that time perfecting her art.

Zhang has created thousands of pencil sketches and watercolors, hundreds of oil paintings and has even written two books: a full-length novel called The Blazing Girl and an autobiography titled My Existence.

Born in a village near Taiyuan, North China's Shanxi province, in 1978, she first showed symptoms of the condition that would later take away her mobility at age 6.

Her parents, rural middle school teachers, could barely afford the medical bills and exhausted almost all their savings paying for their daughter's treatment.

"One day, when I was 9 years old, I woke up and had piercing pain in all my joints," Zhang said.

"I found I could not move my body. The pain has accompanied me ever since. It even keeps me awake at night sometimes."

Due to her condition, regular schooling was not an option. She did try to attend the village primary school at first, but dropped out after six months because she found the physical act of attending class agonizing.

Treatments prescribed by village and county doctors did little to alleviate Zhang's symptoms, so she stayed at home, in bed, and taught herself painting, as her parents taught her the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

"I know my parents wanted a boy when they had me, but they always treasured me, even after I got sick," she wrote in her autobiography.

"Despite that, for a long time, I was very depressed. Sometimes, I felt I was on the brink of collapse."

Zhang's love of art was what kept her going and eventually propelled her toward her future career.

"I have loved painting since childhood, it makes me calm at heart and my pain even seems lessened while painting," she said.

Her big break came in 1996, when Zhou Xiaolu, her sister's classmate, first saw Zhang's paintings.

Zhou's father, an established science fiction novelist, was looking for an illustrator for his latest story, which would be serialized in a renowned Chinese fiction periodical.

So Zhang, age 17, read the text carefully and drew more than 20 pictures for Zhou's father, who commended her work, noting her "comprehensive ability to convey a writer's most delicate thoughts through the discourse of fine art".

All of the artwork was accepted for publication by the periodical's editors and Zhang received 600 yuan ($87) as remuneration, almost three months' income for her family at that time.

With that revelation, the young artist decided she would strive to make a living from her art.

She was encouraged in her endeavors by a number of the periodical's readers, who became her pen pals.

One of them - a woman from Luzhou, Sichuan province, named Yu Yimei - still keeps in contact with Zhang to this day.

It was Yu who, in 2014, persuaded Zhang to take up oil painting, because "traditional Chinese ink sketches and watercolor paintings always make the bedclothes dirty".

By watching online videos, reading books and copying the works of Western masters, Zhang was able to teach herself how to paint with oils. In 2,000 hours, she has created more than 200 oil paintings.

Her younger brother suggested she sell some online.

"I thought it was a good idea, as there was no place to store them at home and more important, I thought it could be a reliable source of income for my parents, who still have to work to support me," Zhang said.

Her e-commerce store "Lily's Easel" opened in February on social networking app WeChat and she sold her first painting on the second day, for 360 yuan.

The buyer was captivated by the artwork and told Zhang he would cherish it, a comment that moved her to tears.

In the first two months, she sold dozens of paintings and also started to receive custom orders.

Not all the buyers knew about her condition at first, but after finding out they have been universally encouraging, Zhang said.

Still, her physical condition worsens day by day and she is mentally prepared for the end.

"I pray to God every day for more time. I am not greedy, I just want to have painted for 10,000 hours. That is my dream," she said.

Contact the writers at

 Painting pictures through the pain

Zhang Junli (second from right) appears on a program on Channel 3 of China Central Television in Beijing, in 2014.Photos By Sun Ruisheng / China Daily

 Painting pictures through the pain

Zhang makes an oil painting in bed at home near Taiyuan, Shanxi province.

(China Daily 03/31/2017 page7)

Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349