Robotics

The artist creating robots with Chinese characteristics

Sun Shiqian is devoted to making ‘robot art’ that is distinctly Chinese, moving beyond US and Japanese influences

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 11:41am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 10:25pm

In the suburbs of Beijing, a 32-year-old engineer creates the kind of larger-than-life, shape-shifting robots that most have only seen in the Transformers movies.

Sun Shiqian’s roomy warehouse on the outskirts of the capital houses a hulking menagerie, from a sleepy cow to a fiery metal dragon that stands 4.9 metres tall at the flip of a switch.

A graduate of China’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts, Sun worked as an engineer before deciding to devote himself full-time to what he calls “robot arts”.

“As a child, I loved watching cartoons with robots,” Sun said.

“But I noticed that they were all from either Japan or the United States. There were no Chinese robots.”

At the World Robot Conference in Beijing last month, the sculptor showcased an ox with the mechanical ability to transform into a robot “gladiator”, equipped with steel abs.

The android is part of his series based on the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

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This June, Sun unveiled a five metre tall “Monkey King” inspired by the simian protagonist of China’s famed novel Journey to the West. Like his model, the five-tonne robot holds a golden cudgel, except his is 6.3 metres long.

The next model of “Monkey King” is slated to challenge an American giant robot to a duel next year.

Sun grew up on an island off the coast of Dalian in northeastern Liaoning province. His family could not afford many toys, but his father, a former soldier, would often show him simple blueprints of weapons that were used in combat.

Using these blueprints and sheets of cardboard, Sun fashioned miniature fighting dragons and other creatures.

“I began to like art more and more and I made increasingly complex robots in my spare time,” he said.

After leaving his engineering post in 2011, Sun focused his energy on designing robots – some costing upwards of 1 million yuan (US$150,000) – and making his visions a reality.

He was commissioned by Paramount Movies three years ago to make robot sculptures to promote the movie Transformers: Age of Extinction, which broke box office records in China.

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One model was exhibited at the historic Qianmen Gate, which formerly guarded the entrance to the Imperial City in Beijing.

“People asked me, why are they putting foreign art in front of Qianmen?” Sun recalled.

“This had a big impact on me, because they recognised that this robot did not have Chinese origins. From then on, my dream has been to create robot art that is distinctly Chinese.”