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Work / Photography

Xiaopeng Yuan reinterprets the Chinese fable, The Butterfly Lovers, in a series for Télévision magazine

Whilst working as part of Same Paper, Xiaopeng Yuan keeps up his own photographic practice. We’ve covered some of his work in the past, and so when we saw the newly-released issue of Télévision magazine, the cover of which features a new story shot by Xiaopeng, we had to find out more.

The cover image shows a young girl, head bowed while a blue cotton headdress falls down her neck. It’s an intriguing and beautifully soft photograph, a quality that is distinctly Xiaopeng’s. Given free rein by Télévision to interpret its latest theme, “legend”, Xiaopeng has created a series based on a famous Chinese fable titled The Butterfly Lovers.

Often abbreviated to Liang Zhu, the story of The Butterfly Lovers a legend well known across China. It’s a tragic love story that tells of a girl and a boy – Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai – in the Eastern Jin dynasty (265–420 AD). Zhu was the ninth child and only daughter of a wealthy man and, although education was not usually encouraged for women at the time, she convinced her father to let her attend school, disguised as a man.

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

Here, she meets Liang and gradually falls in love with him. Liang feels a strong affinity with Zhu but is so absorbed by his books that he fails to notice she is in disguise. Eventually, Zhu is called away from school by her father and leaves a betrothal gift for Liang so he may understand who she really is after she departs. When Zhu’s true identity is finally revealed to Liang he too professes his love for her but it’s too late – Zu’s father has arranged for her marriage to a wealthy merchant. The news proves too much for Liang, and his health quickly deteriorates leading to his untimely death and, in Romeo and Juliet fashion, Zhu later throws herself to the grave too. The couple then emerges as spirits in the form of butterflies, never to be separated again.

Xiaopeng was first introduced to the story as a young child. “It brings a very romantic feeling whenever I think about this story, and some of the plots left a deep impression on me,” he tells It’s Nice That. “So I took some plots from the story for this shoot, as well as some other fascinating entry points from research I did, such as their clothes, or gender identities.”

As a result, the images in The Butterfly Lovers emulates the uniforms the boys – and Zhu in disguise – wore at their school, but it also emulates the drama and romanticism imbued throughout the tale. In order the ground the series in more contemporary times, however, Xiaopeng opted to keep the camera within the composition for several of the images.

“I was quite worried about falling into the storyline, reproducing images only based on the story,” he explains of the decision. “Then I decided to keep the cameras in the photo, which echos with the media of how I heard of the story – television.” The Butterfly Lovers, in turn, is a visually arresting series of photographs that combines a traditional tale of Chinese folklore with symbols of modernity, re-interpreting it in Xiaopeng’s signature allure.

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers

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Xiaopeng Yuan: The Butterfly Lovers