Chinese engineer makes over 400 steampunk insects

May 21, 2020

Inspired by the steam-powered machinery of the 19th century and his love of insects, Xian Qiwen created over 400 mechanical pieces from real bugs.

For over five years, Xian Qiwen has been carving out dried insects and turning them into elaborate mechanical pieces.

A Japanese rhinoceros beetle modified with gears.
A Japanese rhinoceros beetle modified with gears.

Known as branchmonkey on Chinese social media, Xian is part of a growing online community of steampunk enthusiasts in China.

They share images of their otherworldly creations and exchange advice on how to build them.

(Read more: Meet the artist who makes wearable bamboo cats)

Xian’s sculptures exaggerate the features of the critters he modifies. His scorpion, for example, has a needle gun attached to its stinger. “Because a scorpion uses its stinger to paralyze its prey,” he says.

A scorpion modified with a needle gun.
A scorpion modified with a needle gun. / Photo: Frentee Ji

A Japanese rhinoceros beetle is loaded with hardware and gears, “because it can lift things 100 times heavier than itself,” he says.

The origins of China’s steampunk fad

Steampunk as a subgenre of science fiction derives its fantastical elements from the steam-powered machinery of the 19th century.

The aesthetic has been popularized in books like Around the World in 80 Days, films such as Howl’s Moving Castle, and video games like Final Fantasy.

In China, steampunk first gained ground in 2009 with the release of the puzzle adventure game Machinarium. The graphics, drawn in steampunk style, earned a niche following.


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The aesthetic entered the mainstream consciousness in 2012 with Tai Chi Zero, a Chinese martial arts film by Stephen Fung billed as a “steampunk kung fu throwdown.” The film made $210 million in the Chinese box office.

(Read more: An ‘Avengers: Endgame’ ticket sold for $100 in China. What’s behind the craze?)

Online, a steampunk community emerged on the Reddit-like platform Baidu Tieba in 2013.

Steampunk enthusiasts started sharing their creations online, and today, there are over 100,000 posts on the forum.

Crafting steampunk insects

“Insects have always fascinated me,” says Xian Qiwen.

Xian, a full-time toy engineer, recalls catching grasshoppers and digging for weevils as a child in Foshan, a city in southern China.

Xian Qiwen works on a steampunk insect at his home in Foshan, China.
Xian Qiwen works on a steampunk insect at his home in Foshan, China. / Photo: Frentee Ji

He got into steampunk insects when he saw the work of Mike Libby, an American artist known for his bio-cybernetic sculptures, in 2015.

The combination of nature and machinery fascinated him as an insect enthusiast and toy engineer, and he began making his own steampunk insects inspired by some of Libby’s designs.

In the time since, he has made over 400 pieces, some selling for up to $3,000 on Idle Fish, an online marketplace for second-hand goods.

He now has over 9,000 followers on Idle Fish and earns around $1,000 a month selling his steampunk creations. But his passion remains in the craft.

“It’s amazing to see the final product,” he says.

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Producer and Videographer: Frentee Ji

Narration: Gavin Huang

Editors: Frentee Ji and Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña