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Alum Henry Zhang boasts a host of talents – including one that led to a collaboration with a major fashion house to celebrate the Year of the Dragon.
Henry Zhang next to his artwork
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Ask most people what they do for a living, and you’ll get a pretty simple answer. For former Partner Henry Zhang (BEI, HKO 00-03. 05-09), the response is a bit more complicated. With an incredible ability to switch between disciplines, Henry – pen name Feng Tang – is a renowned author and calligrapher, but that’s not all. From medicine to consulting and creative writing to art, Henry’s diverse pursuits have not only shaped his own life but have also left an indelible mark on the world.

In this interview, Henry talks about how his disparate disciplines have led to a rich life.

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A diversity of talents

Henry’s journey began with a revelation about his own genetic predisposition towards mental illness. "I was told that my tendency toward schizophrenia is 155 times higher than the average person,” he says. This realization led him to prioritize his mental well-being and find ways to channel his energy into productive outlets. He also discovered a flip side to his diagnosis, one that he was fortunate enough to exploit: an enhanced capability to focus on many different subjects and disciplines.

Henry began his adult life by earning a doctoral degree in clinical medicine in China. Soon after, looking for still another challenge, he left China for the U.S., where he earned his MBA at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. This led to his joining McKinsey in 2000, becoming a Partner in 2008.

But one passion followed him throughout all of these pursuits: writing.

The writing life

Writing is an integral part of Henry’s life. “From a very early stage of my life I truly believed that having a serious hobby – ideally a hobby quite different from what you do every day – is a good thing,” Henry says. “For me, writing novels, literature, poems, essays, stories, is my serious hobby. I was doing this long before I started medicine, long before I started in business, long before I joined McKinsey.”

Henry is the author of seven novels, one of which he wrote by age 18, which have proved to be wildly popular in China. He plans on writing three more, having promised himself at a young age that he would write a total of ten. “Chances are, if I live long enough, I will get a Nobel Prize in literature,” he jokes. “I want to write something like ‘The Great Gatsby.’”

Henry is also a popular essayist, having written a regular column in GQ China for the past fourteen years. “I’ve outlasted five editors,” he laughs.

Ink and brush

In addition to being known for his novels, Henry is famous for his elegant calligraphy. His interest in formal Chinese calligraphy, an artistic expression of Chinese characters, is rooted in childhood experience. "I did three years of calligraphy starting at the age of seven," he says. “It wasn’t part of the regular curriculum; it was an activity that I chose.”

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Henry creates a calligraphic piece

After giving it up for many years, it was his novel-writing that brought him back into it. “People are always asking me to sign their copies of my books. It's so boring to sign your name thousands of times. It’s tedious. So I thought, why don't I just get my calligraphy brush? This way, I improved my calligraphy skills and I sign books in a more interesting way now.”

Henry explains how Chinese characters are “a shortcut to Chinese culture” – meaning that the way they depict certain words reflects the way people think about and perceive certain concepts. For example, Henry explains the Chinese character that means ‘law.’ “The character is made up of two symbols: one means ‘water’ and the other means ‘go.’ This reflects our idea that the law moves naturally, like water.”

To those seeking an understanding of Chinese calligraphy, Henry recommends two things: learning a couple of hundred Chinese characters, and exploring Tang dynasty poems. By deciphering the characters' meaning and philosophy, he says, learners can begin to grasp the cultural nuances embedded in calligraphy.

High-end collaborations . . . and dragons

Henry’s work is so respected that fashion brand Hugo Boss asked him to create artwork and calligraphy for a line of clothing for both men and women for its BOSS label. The line – which includes jackets, hoodies, and shoes, among other items – was recently released to coincide with the Lunar New Year, and features not only Henry’s calligraphy but also dragons, as a nod to this being the Year of the Dragon.

Symbolizing power, longevity, and achievement, the dragon holds a unique place in Chinese cultural history. “In Chinese culture, the dragon is the most powerful animal, although it is an imaginary, magical beast," Henry says. "In Western culture, dragons can be monsters, but in China, the dragon combines the most powerful parts of different animals.”

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Henry’s artwork and calligraphy feature on a line of menswear for Hugo Boss label BOSS

Henry has also created a Chinese font for iconic luxury pen brand Montblanc. The company has exclusive rights to his font for ten years, and other famous brands have approached Henry asking to use it when the contract ends. “I had to write 10,000 different Chinese characters. There might be 100 characters that fit on a single page. If I made a mistake, I threw away the whole page and did it again," Henry says, adding that he ended up with wrist and lumbar issues from the long hours of work. "My standard for tidiness is quite high," he says ruefully.

His latest creation? A set of hand-written and hand-painted mahjong tiles, produced by the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which will be released shortly. “Soon people can play mahjong with my painting and calligraphy on it,” Henry says happily, adding that he also has his sights set on designing everyday items such as homewares and furniture.

Management school and beyond

Henry's artwork picture
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Beyond his creative pursuits, Zhang is also passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience in management. He has founded an online business school, focusing on management training, which combines Western management principles with Chinese management wisdom. The school offers affordable courses and so far has garnered 200,000 subscribers. “I want to combine what I learned from my ten years with McKinsey with my knowledge of Chinese management wisdom,” he says. “So these are the three things I’m doing: literature, calligraphy, and management teaching.”

So what does Henry want us to take away from his journey so far?

He would like us all to try a little Chinese calligraphy to see the beauty in it for ourselves. “Get yourself one or two pens,” he says. “Get some ink, get a piece of paper. It’s not so hard. People can appreciate the beauty of calligraphy in everyday life.”