Bicycles take Chinese opera paintings to the world

A bicycle featuring a painting by local artist Zhu Gang from the Kunqu Opera classic "Outside the Frontier" is the first in a series by the US-based Electra Bicycle Company.
Ti Gong

Artist Zhu Gang (left) and Gu Haohao, director of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, pose with the first Electra bike painted with images from Kunqu Opera during a presentation ceremony yesterday.

A bicycle featuring an image from Chinese opera was unveiled in Shanghai yesterday. The image from Kunqu Opera classic “Outside the Frontier” was painted by local artist Zhu Gang.

It depicts Wang Zhaojun (born circa 50 BC), one of the four great beauties in Chinese history, who is about to leave home to marry a tribal leader for the good of her country.

The US-based Electra Bicycle Company donated the first prototype in its “Chinese art” series to the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe at a ceremony in Huangpu District marking the bike manufacturer’s 25th anniversary. Kunqu Opera performer Gu Haohao, who plays the role of Wang in the opera, accepted the bike at the ceremony.

“We hope the outstanding traditional Chinese cultures can also ride the bike to ‘Outside the Frontier’ and across the world,” said Gu, who is also the director of the troupe.

The first batch in the “Chinese art” series of bicycles also includes Zhu’s renditions of Yang Yuhuan, the beautiful and powerful concubine of Emperor Tang Minghuang (AD 685-762) and Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King.

The bicycles will be sold in Europe and the United States and, according to Electra, the aim is to help boost cultural exchanges between China and the US.

Electra bicycles currently have an 80 percent share of the leisure bike market in the US. Customers include Russian President Vladimir Putin and pop star Justin Bieber.

The company entered the Chinese market last year, opening a store in Shanghai.

Zhu is one of the few artists to specialize in Chinese opera painting. He paints in oils and combines Western skills with the approach of his Chinese predecessors from various painting schools.

He is known for his ability to capture key moments, poses and movements of Chinese opera performers. He is also adept at depicting their characteristic facial expressions.

Zhu never sets up an easel at performances, but instead sits in the audience to enjoy the whole opera. Before painting, he talks to performers about their understanding of the characters they portray and the opera itself. 

In his “Outside the Frontier” painting, Wang is wearing a handsome red cloak and a brave expression, but a close inspection of the painting reveals that while she faces forward, her toes are facing backward to home, symbolizing her reluctance to leave, Zhu said.

Opera painting dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1270) and uses traditional Chinese painting skills to depict mainly Peking and Kunqu operas. The images were frequently used as book illustrations and posters, capturing the essence of characters, crucial scenes and entire operas.

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