For Zheng Jinlong, Leonardo da Vinci is more of a designer of military devices than a painter. The 32-year-old has an online shop on Taobao, an e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba, and has gained fame as an expert on ancient military models.
He is known for making real-life models based on da Vinci’s designs for military devices. Some of his creations were also inspired by descriptions in ancient Chinese literary works and images in movies and TV series.
Zheng, from Guangzhou, capital city of Guangdong Province in south China, followed a routine life of going to school, getting a diploma and finding a stable job. But it was his hobby of making military models that got him out of the conventional track.
“I have been interested in doing handiwork since childhood,” Zheng told Beijing Review. When he was a schoolboy, he would pick up scraps on the way to and from school and try to figure out how to create something interesting out of it.
He is a great fan of ancient military equipment. “They look cool,” he said. “The neat and delicate design, the gears, every detail demonstrates the wisdom of ancient people.”
Initially, studying and trying to make models was just a way for him to ease work pressure. But gradually, he wanted to make it more than just a hobby.
In 2018, he finally quit his job and became a full-time ancient military vehicle and equipment model maker. He invested about 8,000 yuan ($1,150) in a printer and a laser wood cutting machine, and launched his business on Taobao. His first sale was a trebuchet, or catapult, model.
His shop steadily gained fame, putting him in touch with people from all over the world with the same interests. A British customer told Zheng that he was surprised to find models from da Vinci’s designs made by a Chinese and ended up buying three models as Christmas gifts for his children.
As his business grew, Zheng’s wife joined him as a full-time partner and they now earn about 30,000 yuan ($4,325) a month, higher than their salaries at their former jobs.
Outside of the box
This year, Zheng was invited to take part in the Taobao Maker Festival, an annual event where young entrepreneurs can demonstrate their creative ideas and innovations.
“Today, young people have diversified demands for commodities,” said Chris Tung, Chief Marketing Officer of Alibaba. “When they can’t find an item, some choose to produce it themselves.”
Official statistics show that since January, more than 40,000 businesses have been launched on Taobao every day and the new shop owners’ average age is 25.
The Taobao Maker Festival was started in 2016 and has quickly become an exhibition for young designers, creators and craftspeople to showcase their products and innovations. In 2016, some 108 businesses participated in the event, but this year, the number skyrocketed to over 200,000.
The first four editions of the festival were held in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in east China, where Alibaba’s headquarters are located. This year, four cities were selected to host its activities. Along with an online event, a vehicle, 20 meters long and 7 meters high, set off from Hangzhou in early August for the other three host cities: Xi’an in Shaanxi Province in the northwest; Chengdu in Sichuan Province in the southwest; and Wuhan in the central province of Hubei.
Generally, hanfu refers to traditional clothing of the Han ethnic group with a history of more than 2,000 years. Wu Qiuqiao, born in 1994, expands the use of its designs to a new sphere, creating outfits for pets. Before returning to her hometown in Changsha, Hunan Province in central China, in May 2019, she worked in Beijing for two years. The long commute and extreme work pressure in the capital city wore her out. Armed with a business idea and her cat, she made her way back home.
Wu’s family runs a small clothing factory. After three months of creating designs, she launched her first series of pet hanfu on Taobao. With no promotion or advertising, the first customer bought all her products and gave a very good review. Today, she can make about 50,000 yuan ($7,200) a month from her shop.
Young creators with innovated gourmet tastes have also hopped on the bandwagon. Ice cream with vinegar and soy sauce mixed in and bread filled with noodles were very popular among adventurous foodies at this year’s festival. “They might not be what I would call delicious in the traditional sense,” a 23-year-old visitor to the festival in Hangzhou said. “But who cares? We come here for different tastes.”
Liu Dongsheng, a flying enthusiast, spent 700,000 yuan ($100,900) developing a wing-shaped device, which he said can enable the user to fly for about 20 km. Though some netizens said the machine was ugly and heavy, Liu also received praise for his daring.
“The products displayed at the festival don’t necessarily have to yield huge sales,” Tung said. “What is most important is the idea behind the design.”
Gizmos a go-go
Wu Yangde appeared at a festival activity in Chengdu with his vintage car—created from two abandoned motorbikes. His exhibit looked very fancy.
The young mechanic moved to Shanghai from his hometown in Anhui Province in east China when he was 13 in 2000. In 2005, inspired by a Taobao advertisement on TV, he started to explore innovations and turned his eyes to abandoned vehicle parts.
In 2009, he opened a motorcycle repair shop and in his spare time, tried to create things out of discarded parts. He made lamps and other gadgets with these materials.
“At first, it was just for fun,” Wu told Beijing Review. “But then there were customers who offered to pay for the products and even started to place orders.”
With a growing number of buyers for his creations, Wu launched a shop on Taobao. The uniquely designed gadgets attracted TV programs, which invited him to tell his story and show his products. Famous singers and movie stars became his customers.
“Today, my main income still comes from repairing motorcycles,” he said. “I can’t count on my creative gadgets for a living yet… but you never know what could happen in the future.”