It was 1968; China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution. Vigilantes caught artist Han Meilin in the streets of his village in Anhui province and beat him to the pavement. Suddenly, a tiny dog, a Shih Tzu, darted out and licked Han's battered face—until a club smashed the animal's back. Han was unconscious by the time he was taken away to prison, but the next morning his first thoughts ran to the Shih Tzu. From now on, he vowed, his art would be devoted to animals. "I wanted to paint beautiful things," Han, 44, recalls through an interpreter, "things that won't hurt anybody."

Vilified after his arrest as "a poisonous weed" for his friendship with foreigners, Han spent four years and seven months in prison. He was denied artist's materials and beaten whenever guards spied him "sketching" with chopsticks on the only canvas at hand, his prison trousers. Finally, in 1972, he was released, and in a startling turnabout has since become China's foremost contemporary artist—popular enough there to draw crowds wherever he goes, and now the first to be honored with a one-man show outside his homeland.

Among Han's most famous paintings in China, ironically, is a portrait of the Shih Tzu who befriended him when he was attacked. It is one of the 300 watercolors that, after a glittering premiere at Manhattan's World Trade Center late last month, will tour 21 U.S. cities from Boston to Lexington, Ky. The show's impresarios are Charles Abrams, a New York-based China trade expert (FORTUNE calls him "the P.T. Barnum of China trade") and Han's distributors in Peking. They are asking $5,000 apiece for the major paintings. The Chinese government controls the profits, though Han should join the handful of his countrymen making more than $520 a year who will have to pay China's new personal income tax. "Art," he affirms dutifully, "belongs to the people."

But Han's lifelike paintings, done with a deft, quick hand and often whimsically titled, are refreshingly free of cant. His politics are of the heart. Zua Ha, 26, his ex-actress bride of 10 months, explains: "His animals are lovable, and that's why they attract such crowds." Han met her when she was forced to attend a public criticism session during his imprisonment. She managed to get close enough to him to whisper a few words of encouragement. They have been steady companions since his release. "The flower of my art is rooted in Chinese soil," declares Han, "but it is nurtured by rain, sunshine and dew from other countries." A teacher showed him Picasso and Matisse, and they influenced his work. He likes to paint while listening to Beethoven, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Debussy.

A favorite Chinese proverb of Han's goes: "Sometimes bad turns into good and good into bad." Grandson of a folk artist and son of a pharmacist's assistant who died when he was 2, Han was born in the city of Jinan and raised in poverty. As a child he found bits of chalk and started sketching. By 17 he had joined the army, taught painting in an elementary school and published two art textbooks. A student and later a teacher at Peking's Central Academy of Fine Arts, he moved to Anhui province and, until his arrest, worked in an arts and crafts studio.

After leaving prison, he was assigned to decorating teapots in a factory. His co-workers covered for him while he created his own designs—against the supervisor's wishes. In his off-hours Han painted, and in 1978 his watercolors caught the eye of curators at Peking's National Gallery. They gave him a one-man show last year. "Now I can paint anything I want anytime I want," boasts Han, whose first stop on the current U.S. tour was San Diego. Appropriately enough, he headed straight for the zoo.

"California stimulated and inspired me," claims Han, now vice-president of the Anhui Academy of Painting and Calligraphy, "especially the protection that's being given the endangered species there." In Manhattan, at a dinner benefit for Long Island's Animal Rescue Fund, he met some distant kin, and his wife saw her maternal grandparents for the first time. But—bad into good, good into bad—their trip was not entirely trouble-free. When Han and Zua hailed a taxi for a ride to a luncheon near their hotel, the driver misunderstood their directions and headed the wrong way. Han, through frantic gestures, finally persuaded him to turn around. The guests of honor showed up at the luncheon just as dessert was being served.