Look to her fingers for clues, and there is only the hand of a child, this one tiny and unmarked, fiddling with a coffee stirrer, a Mickey Mouse watch around the wrist. Her eyes, downcast, flash to the side with a sly look -- the glance of a shy but playful 14-year-old. When she sees that her father's name tag has migrated from his chest to his thigh, Wang Yani doubles over in delighted giggles. Yani is that baffling creature, a child prodigy. In person, in conversation, she offers no solution to the puzzle of her talent, no answer to the question of where the delightful and daring creations come from. Since the age of 3, her ink paintings of cats and monkeys, flowers and mountains have shown a confidence and skill that have astonished Chinese and European artists and scholars. With "Yani: The Brush of Innocence," organized by Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and now appearing at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the teenager from China's southern Guangxi province has become the youngest artist ever to have a solo Smithsonian show. She is a lithe girl who favors floral appliques and sparkles on her clothes, bows and strands of silver tinsel for her hair. Ink-saturated brush in hand during a painting demonstration at the Sackler, she bends down toward a sheet of paper far larger than herself, and with a quick, forceful press-push-twist of her wrist shapes a black-green Chinese squash. Holding a large brush above the paper, she allows the drips to fall, only later to return to transform the splotches of gray into tiny, cheery birds. Now she pauses and surveys the paper, studies it as if to find in it the shape of a monkey, of a flower. The expression on her face is of utter concentration, and as she leans forward into her work her taut legs move with the assurance of an athlete's. She paints with such speed and intensity that the process resembles automatic writing, as if she is operating in some sort of trance, her skill using her rather than being used by her. But the finished pictures are lyrical and inventive and idiosyncratic, the creations of a very real, very specific young girl. "I think painting is something very simple," she says through the screen of a translation. "You just paint what you think. You don't have to follow something. Anyone can paint." She speaks with no trace of irony, and the adults around her laugh knowingly at her simplicity, as if the laughter begins to answer the questions she inspires. She has a smile and a certain dip of the head that encourages people to forget the barrier of language. Even while the incomprehensible English is spilling out of strangers' mouths, she keeps smiling. To the Chinese government, Wang Yani is doubtless the best nugget of PR to hit the Western world in months. To scholars she is an omen for continuing intellectual bonds and artistic exchanges with Chinese colleagues and friends. To Sackler Director Milo Beach, Yani and her art are a bridge between the United States and a culture he and his colleagues love, no matter the actions of its government. "It does build up contacts between Americans and the people of China at a time when we are struggling to understand that country," he says. And to Sackler curator Jan Stuart, she is an intellectual conundrum. "She defies us," says Stuart. "We're always charting influences from the past," but with Yani, such influences seemingly do not exist. Stuart and other scholars can and do make gallant efforts to identify traditional Chinese images in Yani's work. The crane below the pine tree is a familiar Chinese symbol of longevity, except to Yani, who called her bird and tree picture "Where Is That Little Monkey?" and was surprised to learn of the symbolism. Stuart speculates that Yani saw the motif in pieces of popular art, perhaps a calendar. Painters whose "influence" can be found in her work were dead long before she was born in 1975, and their pictures are new to her, unschooled as she is in formal art technique and history. Yani began painting at 2 1/2, as her father Wang Shiqiang, who has traveled with her to celebrate the opening of the Sackler exhibit, tells the story. A professional painter himself, Wang Shiqiang remembers that he was working in a studio when Yani took a piece of charcoal and began drawing on the wall. She stepped back, imitating her father's stance and studying her work with eyes half-closed, one arm on her hip, a mini-artist. Later, like any toddler, she put her charcoal to a piece of available paper -- one of her father's paintings -- and he spanked her. Only after his daughter cried "Daddy! I want to paint like you!" did Wang Shiqiang remember his own childhood and his parents' disapproval of his interest in art. He says he then began to support his daughter's scribbles. "I realized she was extraordinarily interested in painting," says her father, a smiling man who appears delighted with everything around him. "She was very serious about what she drew, and it looked like she cherished them more than I cherished my paintings. I looked at these abstract paintings -- I was interested. I couldn't tell what she was drawing, but I would ask her and she would tell me what they were about. In every picture there was a story. We made this into a routine, and gradually she developed her own path." Soon the typical figures of a child's drawings disappeared -- the people whose arms and legs sprout from their huge heads, what Lynn T. Goldsmith and David Henry Feldman, who have written a book on child prodigies and contributed an article to the Wang Yani catalogue, call the "tadpole formula." By age 3, Yani was capturing the self-possessed skepticism of a cat with a few sure strokes of her animal hair brush. By 4, she had added acrobatic monkeys, posturing and playing, and drunken monkeys, the gray ink bleeding into the vegetable fiber paper to become fuzzy monkey fur. For years monkeys remained her obsessively favorite subject, especially after she got one as a pet, but by the time she was 5, her blue pigment was also flowing into the shapes of peacocks, and other images followed. "We have animals at home," she says, "and I think if you spend a lot of time with animals, gradually they become attached to you. And I think animals are very good friends. Animals can help human beings in some ways, like dogs can pick up something for you when you ask them to. In China there is a kind of monkey the size of a cup. They can help you grind the ink stone." By the time she was 6, Yani had exhibited in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Since early childhood, she has painted in front of crowds, including a crowd of thousands in a stadium. Unlike her father, who had painted in the realistic, Western-influenced style popular during China's Cultural Revolution, Yani worked with the ancient Chinese brush and ink. Her work is characterized as xieyi -- "idea writing" -- a free, spontaneous Chinese style that relies on no advance plans or actual models, the images issuing from the artist's imagination at the moment she puts brush to paper. Although her father says he has worked with her on concentration exercises, he says he is determined she will be shaped by no outside taste or style. There are no art books in the Wang home, and in 1983 he stopped his own painting, he says, so as not to influence his daughter. "More and more, her paintings moved me, until she completely squeezed me out of my space," says Wang Shiqiang, who now works for the regional cultural bureau, arranging artistic exchanges. "Originally, on the walls of our house they were all pictures of mine. Eventually, we replaced them with hers. "It was difficult to stop," says the onetime painter of abandoning his art. "I feel very emotional when I see exhibitions in the museums, but I had to do it because I wanted her to paint her own paintings." Wang Shiqiang's refusal to paint is only one more in a series of disorienting facts that inevitably shake the American observer. Is this selflessness a recognition that his child has surpassed him? Or is it the ultimate example of an obsessive stage-parent? There is the story about Yani and her father, that when she was small he would sneak up behind her and, startling her, grab the brush from her hand, in an attempt to teach her to hold the brush firmly, to paint with the force of her entire arm and body. And the story of the time when, at 4, she had a temper tantrum during a public painting demonstration because someone had spilled water on her table. She would return to painting only when plied with ice cream. Later, her father took her back to the hotel and, ordering her not to paint again, said an artist should never be selfish and arrogant. He left her alone, and later returned to find her crying: "Daddy, I will never paint again." Wang Shaqiang forgave and comforted his child. Such actions sound harsh, but together the father and daughter seem to move in graceful, familiar tandem, at total ease, he filming her being filmed for television, she half-listening to his telling of now-familiar tales. Wang Shiqiang says he has learned "freedom, freedom of expression in art" from his daughter, and he has clearly given her freedom of a kind as well. It was Yani who chose the name for her 9-year-old brother, Qiangyu. "Suddenly, this sound came to me," she says, "and I liked the sound of the name, so I told Daddy, 'We should name him that.' " Qiangyu is also a painter. "He once came in second in a contest," says Yani. A contest in which she came in first? Yes, she smiles. They are very good friends, she says, and no -- she looks surprised at the question -- they never fight. There is little talk of her mother, who is described by the Sackler's Stuart as "a loving mother, the manager of the household," not an artist but a saleswoman. Although her father says he wants Yani to find her own art, he has nevertheless shaped her in ways that perhaps only a parent can do. "I see the style I like in her paintings," he says. "It is unified. That means that her brushwork is a broad and fast and swift execution of passions and intuitions. Not like the detailed, slow paintings we see." Yani nods. "In order to lead her into the style I liked, I tried to help her with her personality," he says. "I tried to help her to think in a more boyish way, encouraged her to become more brave, expressive. The girls in her environment, they tend to be quiet and gentle, so they are not like boys, who can be very direct. In Chinese art history, female artists tend to have a gentle style... . I feel that my daughter should not suppress her feelings and become one of those traditionally stereotyped women. She should be able to express herself the way she wants." And the way Yani wants is fast, with large brushes, the black ink and water and colored pigment coursing across the paper. "I like to paint with huge brushes, the bigger the better," she says. "The big brush, you only do it once. The small brush, you go several times -- slow." "Yani and I, I feel, are very much alike in our personalities," her father says. "We are passionate, and when we have very strong feelings about something, we want to express it in a very short span of time. We cannot wait to express our feelings, therefore we have to be speedy, and therefore the big brushes become effective." Since Yani began, she has painted more than 10,000 pictures. She experimented with bright colors, then turned to the spectrum of grays that Chinese ink yields, and is now combining the two. She attends school with others her age, is an excellent runner and jumper, and paints only in the time left by a busy school schedule. Her friends, she says, are busy themselves, and rarely see her pictures. Plans for Yani's visit to Washington were off-and-on for weeks, with the Sackler first hearing it was off (she had to travel through Beijing and the recent demonstrations and subsequent violence made that impossible) and then, once the army had quashed the demonstrations, it was on. The Wangs only learned they would be traveling the day they left China in mid-June. Wang Shiqiang says about the unrest, "I have not felt that there's going to be any effect on Yani in the future," and asked if she has heard anything about the subject, Yani smiles and says no. She is scheduled to visit the United States again this fall before the exhibit closes in October, and will give a series of painting demonstrations at the Sackler and meet with local schoolchildren. Until then, the museum is holding painting and calligraphy demonstrations, storytelling and Chinese music programs every day at 12:30 p.m. Sackler curators hope Yani's exhibit will bring children to the gallery, along with adults who might have assumed Chinese painting held little interest. "It's enormously accessible," says museum director Beach. "It's the kind of exhibition for which you don't need a lot of didactic material on the walls." In fact, not only have the labels been kept simple enough for children to read, the pictures have all been hung six inches lower than usual, closer to a child's eye level. But Yani herself is now almost as tall as her father, no longer a child. The developmental quirk that produces a child prodigy inevitably ends, and then what is left? A diminished future, ravaged by adolescence, the surprising maturity of her childhood fading into ordinary adulthood? Or an extraordinary career as an artist who just happened to start earlier than most? "She's very hard to see a direction in," Jan Stuart says of Yani. "She wants to explore every genre of painting. Already, at 14, she has explored figure painting, landscapes, animal scenes, covering the entire range of styles in the Chinese tradition. It seems to me that she is an artist who is constantly going to respond to the stimulus around her." As for Yani, asked if she plans to make painting her adult life, she says simply, "I haven't thought about that yet."