Tzu-chi Yeh was born in 1957 in the town of Yuli, located in Hualien County on Taiwan’s east coast. His father originally came from Mei County in Guangdong Province, and born during the late Qing Dynasty, he had received an extensive education in Chinese literary and historical classics, and was very adept at poetry and calligraphy. When the Nationalist troops retreated to Taiwan in the mid-twentieth century, Yeh’s father and his family settled down in Yuli, which, like Mei County, was a predominantly Hakka area. Quiet and introspective, he devoted much of his time to landscape painting, capturing the idyllic natural scenery of his new home. Yeh’s mother came from an aristocratic family of the Bai Yi people, marrying Yeh’s father – 18 years older than her – at the age of 17. Although illiterate and torn away from her home and culture, she was an independent and strong woman, lively, active, and articulate. But with eight children to feed, there wasn’t much to go around, and life was simple. Tzu-chi Yeh showed a talent for calligraphy early on, and he also inherited his father’s compassionate character, love of literature, and aesthetic sensitivity. His mother bestowed on him her idealism and fearless self-reliance, as well as a strong will and perseverance that sometimes bordered on stubbornness.
Yuli is surrounded by mountains on all sides, wedged between the Central and Coastal Range. This kind of majestic and green environment left an indelible mark on the young painter as he grew up, and when he went to high school in Hualien City, his longing for the peaks and ranges of his childhood could only ﬁnd comfort in contemplation of the sea with its timeless, undulating appeal. Practically all the artist’s inspiration, then, comes from his natural surroundings, be it mountains, the Pacific Ocean, clouds and trees, or, at a smaller level, the watermelons which Yuli produces in such abundance, or the various flowers that grow there, and all other everyday things and goings-on. All these would later become emblematic symbols of the artist’s nostalgia for his homeland, to which would be added the Yangming Mountains of Taipei, the bathroom and window views of his New York apartment, and other milestones of Yeh’s artistic journey.
After studying at the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, and graduating from the Fine Arts Department of the Chinese Culture University, Yeh joined the R.O.C. Modern Art Society and co-founded the 101 Modern Art Group, other members of which included several Chinese Culture University alumni, such as Yang Maolin, Lu I-chung, and Wu Tien-chang. They held a joint exhibition to which Yeh contributed a series of realistic pictures with military themes. After his military service, Yeh set up his own studio, and for a while he taught painting for a living. The year 1987 saw his first solo exhibition, held at the American Cultural Center in Taiwan. Most of the work featured focused on family life, images of growing up in Taiwan, and the exploration of historic themes.