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November 6, 2011

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Chinese mask painter breaks the mold

PEOPLE call Sun Guokang the "king of Peking Opera masks."

The artist may surprise many as his inspiration doesn't always come from traditional Chinese art. He says he is often inspired by Picasso's abstract paintings, Tokyo kabuki and even hippies. Critics say he masterfully blends these ideas into his own unique and unconventional creations.

Peking Opera mask, known as lianpu in Chinese, is an old art form practiced starting the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and refers to back stage opera facial makeup.

"Fusing Picasso into the old mask painting was a coincidence," Sun says. "It was in 1984, I visited a Picasso painting exhibition. I was so moved to see his Cubism works. They have such an incredible visual impact and power."

Shortly after, Sun quit doing stage roles and took up the brush.

He added a modern expression to traditional mask painting. The aesthetics and artistic value are eye-catching, transcending any boundaries of language and cultural backgrounds. He also paints masks on canvas and rice-paper.

Through brilliant colors and radical exaggerations, Sun's masks take viewers through the Chinese art world.

Born in a family engaged in Peking Opera, Sun's childhood was spent in back stage dressing rooms, where performers changed costumes and had their makeup changed.

Such experiences empowered him with a deep knowledge of the genre and the ability to memorize loads of opera faces, theatrical plots and characters.

"I never draw drafts," Sun says, smiling proudly. "All the mask faces are in my mind. My brain is similar to a big file that contains various Peking Opera faces. Sometimes one's childhood memory is amazing. When I thought that I have forgotten something as a child, such things miraculously come back to me."

But his memory is not the only skill that has helped him earn the nickname the "king of Peking Opera masks."

Sun played the role of laosheng, a dignified older male role with a genteel and cultivated disposition, for a certain period of time on stage.

"I am too familiar with every move, every posture and every melody," Sun says. "Especially the body movements for every gesture."

However, Sun does not copy what is happening on stage with his masks.

Due to Sun's achievements in promoting Peking Opera masks, he was given the Yokohama Mayor Award from Japan and an Honorary Citizen Award from Monrovia and Los Angeles, California.

He has been invited as a special guest to the London Olympic Art Exhibition next August, showcasing two pieces of oil painting scrolls near the River Thames.

"Some viewers told me that they seem to hear the melodies of Peking Opera through my artworks," he says.

"In fact, when I paint, I always murmur the melodies myself. I believe that only those who have a profound knowledge of Peking Opera can reflect its real charisma vividly."

Despite his success, he worries about the future of Peking Opera.

"There is no real big star today," he says. "I am not exaggerating. Compared to previous Peking Opera masters, there are no outstanding performers now. I have delved in the area too deep, and I fully understand how much effort is required from a performer before he or she can become a master."


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