Zao Wou Ki was born in Beijing, China in 1921. He studied art at the School of Fine Arts of Hangzhou, concentrating mostly on drawing. He exhibited his works for the first time in Chongjing when he was 20 years old.
Wou Ki organized the first exhibition of modern Chinese painters at the National Historical Museum of Tchoung-King, before fleeing to Paris as China experienced dire political upheaval. In 1949, Wou Ki worked briefly with Emile Othon-Friesz and studied lithography. His success grew, notably for his lithographies and he began exhibiting his paintings at the Salon des Tuileries and d’Automne and at the Salon de Mai in 1950.
He has participated in one-man exhibitions in Geneva, Bern and Paris and he was awarded a prize at the Genoa Biennial. During the same week that the International Biennial of Color Lithographs took place in Cincinnati, “Life” magazine reproduced one of Wou Ki’s lithographies. In 1953, Wou Ki created the décor for the ballet “La Perle” in Paris. After 1955, he gave up figurative painting for a more lyrical abstraction form with an aim to express nature at its fullest.
In 1956, Wou Ki represented France in the 40th International Exhibition of the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh and in 1960 he was a member of the French selection at the Venice Biennial and took part in the Tokyo International Biennial. In 1964, Wou Ki chose to become a French national and during the following year, he had his first retrospective exhibition in Essen. In 1969, he had his second retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montreal and the Museum of Art in San Francisco.