Hu Ming – From Soldier to Celebrated Artist

To celebrate the Year of the Horse, City of Sydney is delighted to have commissioned renowned Chinese Australian artist Hu Ming to create a special artwork for the festival.

A resident of Sydney since 1999, Hu Ming has held exhibitions here and in China, as well as in Germany and Singapore, with her paintings sold to buyers around the globe. In China, she showed her most ambitious work, the 14-metre-long Relic of the New 87 Immortals, depicting a procession of Chinese women through the ages, inspired by a scroll painting of the Northern Song Dynasty.

However, her road to becoming an artist was not a direct one, and involved many years in the Red Army before eventually going to university to study art and moving to the West where she has continued to paint to great acclaim.

Hu Ming grew up in China the daughter of two army doctors, who hoped she might follow in their footsteps. Her mother, who is 85, still works as a doctor in Beijing and was the inspiration for her City of Sydney Chinese New Year painting Safety & Peace in Four Seasons.

‘She was born in the Year of the Horse,’ Ming says. ‘Every time that year comes around, I think of her. Like my horse, my mother has white hair and a kind smiling face, even in hard times.’

While Ming was in high school in China, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Recognising she was a keen drawer, Ming’s teacher let her draw Chairman Mao’s portrait.

In 1970, at 15 years-of-age in Beijing Ming joined the army and became a soldier, where she spent the next twenty years of her life.

Her memories include only three days of holiday a year – always over Chinese New Year – with one of these days being ‘volunteer’ work and the other spent making dumplings for the New Year celebrations.

She describes herself as a ‘bad soldier!’, who was frequently in trouble, and laughs as she says she is a better soldier in old age – the years of early rises, long walks and two meals a day now an ingrained part of her everyday routine.

During this period, Ming had numerous postings. Starting as the hospital broadcaster/announcer, she was also a librarian, and a lone projectionist, traveling with a truck and the same eight movies to seven different locations.

She says her time as a librarian changed her profoundly, particularly finding a banned book of Michelangelo’s life drawings, which she secreted back to her room. It was the first time she had seen a nude and she was in turmoil – both fascinated, yet petrified of being discovered with this contraband.

Ming’s study of human anatomy continued when she was sent to train as a nurse, a job she didn’t like. However, in the morgue, she learnt how muscles wrap around the bone, furthering her skills in capturing the human body in her art.

In 1979 she went to university to study art.

In 1982 her whole class spent six months copying the famous 1,500-year-old cave paintings of the Buddhist Dunhuang grotto temples. The work was done on rice paper with only a simple battery torch to see inside the caves. The paper had to be prepared with nine coats of peach tree glue. This was a style of art she came to love.

‘It’s like tai chi,’ she says. ‘Very quiet. Very nice.’

Ming was dux of the arts faculty in her university, and in 1983 she returned to the army hospital and was made head of the art and culture club. After a year, she transferred to the army film factory, which specialised in propaganda war films, where she worked for five years. She was on her way to becoming a director, but her heart was not in it any longer, and at this time China opened its doors to its citizens travelling overseas to study.

Ming moved to New Zealand, where she drew faces at the markets in Auckland, worked for Warner Brothers. In 1993 she began painting full-time from her own studio. She also used oil paints and canvas for the first time in her life, quickly developing a lifelong love for this material.

‘I couldn’t find traditional ink and rice paper,’ she said. ‘Oil is very strong and colourful and I use it in my style, my way.’

In 1999 Ming moved to Kangaroo Valley with her husband, Bob, who designed and built her a bigger studio.

The females depicted by Hu Ming are all sturdy and beautiful Chinese women, capturing a new generation who are brave, strong and on par with men – women who are also more sexual than those depicted in old communist propaganda. Her works are not born of a planned process but represent an accumulation of her diverse experiences. For Ming, Chinese New Year is a time of great joy and happiness – and she wanted to convey this in her work for City of Sydney.

‘It’s colourful,’ she says. ‘And this gives people a New Year feeling – like Christmas.’

For her personally, Chinese New Year is a time to celebrate the new – ‘new feelings, new ideas, new plans for creativity and, of course, a new exhibition!’

Find out more about Hu Ming, her work and her life at