Zao Wou-Ki was born in Beijing on 1 February 1920. He completed his primary and secondary education in Nantong, a small town in the north of Shanghai. From the age of ten, he drew and painted with great freedom. His family did not oppose his vocation as his father himself also practised painting as an amateur and was awarded a prize in an international exhibition in Panama. Zao Wou-Ki was predisposed by a family circle of intellectuals among whom painting was always held in honour.
At the age of fifteen, Zao Wou-Ki started his art training at the famous Fine Arts School of Hangzhou (now known as the China Academy of Art), where he remained for six years. There he learned drawings, oil paintings, traditional Chinese paintings and theory of calligraphy. Instead of pursuing realism and accuracy of rendering, Zao Wou-Ki sought to capture the essential elements of the composition. After his graduation in 1941, Zao Wou-Ki was appointed as an assistant teacher at the Fine Arts School.
He found his own masters - Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso - in postcards brought back from Paris by one of his uncles and in American magazines (Life, Harper's Bazaar and Vogue) then circulated in China. He was convinced that the solutions to his questionings about artistic creation could be found neither in traditional Chinese painting nor in European academic painting but rather by studying Cézanne and Matisse.
While teaching in Chang-King, Zao Wou-Ki met with Vadime Elisseeff who was at that time the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in China and who urged him to go to Paris. With his father's approval, Zao Wou-Ki decided in 1947 to go to Paris to continue his art training. He reached Paris in the morning of the first of April and spent the whole afternoon in the Louvre.
Since then, he settled down in Paris and started his wonderful journey in pursuit of excellence in the art of painting. He experienced different influences from the western art and rediscovered the culture of his motherland.
In 1961, he said, "Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China as my deeper personality has affirmed itself. In my recent paintings, this is expressed in an innate manner. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins".
In sixty years, he builds up a great art career and becomes one of the most prestigious representatives of abstraction. He opens up an unprecedented dimension in the art of painting which sees through and goes beyond the Chinese spirit and the western art tradition and links them together.
Zao was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime. He is well respected internationally, his works are collected by more than one hundred twenty important museums and institutes and he has won numerous honours:
In 1984, he was made an Officer de la Légion d'Honneur.
In 1993, he was made a Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur by French President François Mitterrand. Jacques Chirac, Paris Mayor at that time, presented Zao Wou-Ki with the Grande Médaille Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In 1994, he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale Award of Painting of Japan. The jury was composed of Jacques Chirac, Helmut Schmidt, Amintore Fanfani, Edward Heath, Yasuhiro Nakasone and David Rockefeller Jr.
In 1995, he was awarded the Prix de Science pour l'Art, created in Paris by the LVMH organisation.
In 1997 and 2000, Zao Wou-Ki accompanied French President Jacques Chirac on his official journeys to China.
In 2002, Zao Wou-Ki was elected at the French Académie des beaux-arts.
In 2006, he was made a Grand Officer de l'Ordre de la Légion d'Honneur and decorated by French President Jacques Chirac on November 3rd at the Palais de l'Elysée.
He died on 9 April 2013 at his home in Switzerland.