The Little Museum That Could

Along the one mile stretch of main street that anchors the small Northwestern town of Huanxian in Gansu province, you’ll find their cultural center. Painted a light peachy pink, the building stands out amongst the rest of the concrete. At the top floor of this modest building jutted along the west side of their central square is one of the nicest museum collections of shadow puppetry I’ve been able to take my time with.


The three times I visited during my residency in Huanxian, the building was like a ghost town. I had to hunt down the ‘guy with the key’ twice, in order to access the exhibition. I suppose in a town this small, everyone has seen the exhibition already. Once the room was opened, it was just me in those three rooms. I could just sit and stare and take it all in for as long as I darn well pleased.

Sure, the fact that all the pieces are being held up by packaging tape? Absolutely grimace inducing. But, other than that – there are some unforgettably unique designs that are beautifully posed, well lit and exquisite in their artistry.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may notice that the Gansu shadow puppet style strongly resembles the Shaanxi aesthetic. This is most likely because, back in the day, shadow puppetry made its way Northwest from Shaanxi. Along the way, the singing method and cutting method shifted, but the aesthetic remained largely intact.

I wish I could post all the pictures for you. Or, better yet, teleport you there to witness them first hand. It’s hard to describe just how you feel when standing in front of a master cut piece worn from its life on the screen. How I wish I could have seen them in action.

Thanks for reading & looking ~




IMG_7668Rooftop Terrace Detail


IMG_7693Roof Detail



IMG_7807A Water Monster (Crab) from the White Snake Story 

IMG_7812Another Water Monster  (Turtle) from the White Snake Story



IMG_7858The sun!

North by Northwest – Part 2

Continued from North by Northwest – Part 1

My classes were to start the next morning at nine am. In classic Annie-fashion, I was ready around 8:45 and had to pace around the back parking lot in order to avoid being early. I walked in slow motion from my sixth floor hotel room to the workshops just out back. I took the steps to the second floor with patience. In a glance, I saw Master Gao’s door was open and as I peaked through the cloth flap, I saw him studiously working at his desk. He had already prepared the side desk for me, with a cutting mat, one blade and a comfortable chair.


We exchanged quick pleasantries and got to work. After a quick discussion of my previous work in the Shaanxi and Tangshan style of cutting leather, a small scrap of hide was placed in front of me and along with a selection of head patterns. I chose a simple woman’s head to start my practice.

In a moment, the setting felt so familiar that my body unconsciously fell into work mode. I checked the hide for moisture, picked up my needle tool, aligned my hide over the pattern and began to trace with concerted concentration. They say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. And even though the Gansu cutting method is wholly different from the others, my understanding of the way in which I was going to learn this was the same. I went slow, I was patient and I was persistent.

Master Gao’s skills are humbly presented, even though he’s registered as a national level cultural artist. His pieces have an effortless, yet unforgiving look to them: unapologetically beautiful.



And, he’s a natural teacher. He offers up appropriate suggestions with a soft voice and presents useful comparisons to other cutting methods. He continues to cut as I study, checking in on me every 20 minutes or pausing for a direct question.


This set up may seem normal to the uninitiated, but it is actually unusual in the best sense. The traditional Chinese shadow puppetry apprentice system has changed greatly over the last century. In the early part of the 1900s, as Chinese shadow puppetry was just beginning its end, the apprentice system was still a one-on-one relationship. The emphasis on proximity and prolonged study was central to the transmission. Nowadays, ever since Chinese shadow puppetry picked back up in the late 1970s after decades of repression, the apprentice system looks more like a technical school than anything else. There is often a division of labor (i.e. cutters, painters, designers) and there is an understanding that the goal is commercial, not artistic. The teaching style is more dogmatic in its approach, rather than a cyclical feedback cycle between Master and Apprentice.

In the course of my study in Gansu, I took advantage of my Master’s constant practice and my proximity and tried hard not to take it all for granted. I quickly developed a happy discourse between my own work and observed the master when I had nagging questions. So much can be understood if you know how to look. And though I’m nowhere near mastering this method of puppet making, I feel confident I’ve embodied the basic enough to continue studying on my own.

IMG_7646My progress with the simple woman’s head design; versions 1 through 5.

We ended the week with increased conversations about Master Gao’s biography, his family and the future of traditional shadow puppetry. All of Master Gao’s children have gone onto college, which is a great accomplishment, and all three of them are pursuing artistic fields. He beams with pride as he shows me his daughter’s Chinese style paintings. And although they all live or attend school in different provinces, you get a sense that they’re close. He knows there’s no work for them in Huanxian.

In regards to the future of Chinese shadow puppetry, he has no more confidence than I do. And yet, he also doesn’t seem to have the worry or regret that one might expect. There is a steadiness about him that assuages my worries for a time. Perhaps this perspective is developed from the honest and tangible work of a craftsman, the practicality of a crafter. I feel it too: the solidity of the tools and the ability to manipulate the leather in my hands gives me a growing sense of confidence in all things.

The day before my study is over, I can feel the goodbye already begin to weigh heavily on me. These chances to study grow more and more exceptional. These chances to study with a gifted cutter and teacher? You get the idea.


You’ll find me back in Northwest as soon as I can find my way back to China.

Thanks for reading~

North by Northwest – Part 1

After a short breather in Xi’an, I braved the bus towards the northwestern corner of China’s mainland to the small city of Huanxian in Gansu province. I have been to Huanxian once before, for just a few days in 2011, to attend the National Shadow Puppet Conference held every four years. My memory of the conference is fuzzy as we were shuffled here and there to watch this and that for a full three days. Indelibly, however, the Huanxian performers and cutters are still clear in my mind. They seemed out of place at the conference, even though it was their home turf: while the other troupes handled press with ease and utilized the proscenium stage, the Huanxian artists were awkward in the outsider gaze and unaccustomed to performing indoors. I fell in love with them instantly and knew I had to visit them again, in the sobriety of the off-season.

The bus dropped me off with little aplomb. With one mainstreet, Huanxian is just over one mile long. Its side streets stretch another mile or so wide, but beyond that, the mountains cut off expansion on either side.


They tower over the valley and shelter it from the rest of the world. The wind had swirled the dry, loose soil into a layer of hazy fog that I would have assumed was pollution had I not known Huanxian didn’t have any industry to speak of.

The Shadow Puppet themed hotel was just a three-block walk from the town’s central square and 2 blocks from the bus terminal. I checked in at the front desk, overseen by a few shadow puppet warriors hung ominously high on the walls. Once settled in the tacky, but decent room on the sixth floor, I checked in with my contacts to announce my arrival. Huanxian’s main puppet making company is located on the second floor of the hotel and the cutting workshop just out back. I guess in a town this small, convenience of this sort shouldn’t be a surprise.

Li Yaping, a former provincial level puppet maker, met me in the Longying Shadow Puppet company’s offices. Long years of leaning over a cutting table have relegated her to a manager’s position. She gave us a tour of the offices, empty like a ghost town, and the exhibition room, which boasts a host of lovely pieces and innovative designs. When I asked how busy the company was these days, she replied simply, “not busy.” After discussing the particulars, we agreed that tomorrow I could head out back and look for my cutting teacher myself.

The next morning at nine sharp, I headed out back with my serious researcher pants on, my backpack full of notebooks, freshly charged batteries and my mind set on my goal. Mornings like these have begun to feel familiar. My lack of appetite betrays my outwardly cool composure: I care. I care deeply how the next hour will transpire. A mixture of dread and excitement lays thick in my belly because I never know what I’m going to find. The perfect situation could present itself; an amiable master, a nice workshop, a great study routine and a reasonable price. Or, I could find disgruntled employees, a depressing workshop and an unaffordable situation.

After a thorough tour of the workshop building, I find no one is there. My heart and stomach flutter for a second, but I quickly decide to take the hunt back to the main office. I find the second floor peopled with just one young woman who eagerly agrees to help in my hunt. We head behind the workshop building to the squat brick buildings that serve as residents for some of the employees. We ask a few questions, stand around awkwardly and then, Gao Qingwang rounded the corner. From a distance you could see the deep smile lines creased in his weathered face. He walked with a relaxed gait: open and curious. My young guide jumped when she saw him and explained who I was. In moments, we had agreed to head back to his workshop and talk a bit.

Ten minutes later, the three of us are sitting comfortably in Gao Qingwang’s beautiful studio: a small 10×15 ft room with a window towards the mountains. A bed is in one corner for midday rests and he has shadow puppet trunks stacked against the other wall. Knick knacks and souvenirs are everywhere.





Without ceremony, Master Gao retrieved a piece of leather he was working on, his tools and sat down to work. Relative to other masters, Gao is talkative and can explain his work in motion. He is open to questions, listens thoughtfully and works steadily.



After a buoyant half hour of observation and conversation, we agreed to study every morning for my remaining time in Huanxian.

These are the mornings I dream of. The relief the encounter brought summoned my suppressed hunger and I headed off to an early lunch of hand-pulled noodles and pickled vegetables.


Part Two of my work in Gansu to follow…

Thanks for reading~

Don’t Kill the Messenger

On my way west to Gansu Province from Beijing, I had to pass through my old stomping grounds of Shaanxi Province. Xi’an city is the only logical throughway before heading north by bus to the small desert city of Huanxian. My intention was just to check in on everyone, see how they were doing and be on my merry way. I had not expected to find things so wholly changed.

I had heard rumblings prior to my arrival about the Yutian Wenhua company and knew the Xi’an branch had closed down. I was worried about where my puppet making friends had scattered. When I asked my good friend, puppet maker Wangyan, what she’d be up to when I swung into town, she said “just getting back from doing a shadow puppet performance in Beijing”. I was overjoyed at first, but my relief was short lived.

Save just a few puppet cutters from the old Yutian Wenhua cultural commodity company, and they are the best of the best, the rest are currently out of work. One is delivering sodas, another working in a hotel and Wangyan tried a stint at the local mall. No wonder she jumped at a random opportunity to join a one-time-only shadow puppet performance to welcome the Turkmenistan leader to Beijing, even if she finds herself out of work again on her return to Xi’an.

One trip to the famed Muslim Quarter tourist street in Xi’an and everything is explained. The few shadow shops that were there in 2011 were filled with both machine and hand-cut shadow puppets. I had a growing worry then that most of the vendors were passing off machine-made as hand-cut and making a mint, but had still assumed the industry would progress slowly. Having spent so much time researching in China, I should have known better.

Now, the number of shadow puppet shops in the Muslim Quarter has tripled. And, the handcut shadow puppets? Gone. All of them. Not a single hand cut sample in the shops I visited.



5This is just a sampling of the shadow puppet stores along the Muslim Quarter.

I’ll admit, the grump took a hold of me around the fourth shop or so and I gave an impolite scolding to a shopkeeper; not because they are only selling machine-made puppets but because they are still praying upon the ignorance of the consumer to make a profit.

This domination of the machine-made puppet hawked as the ‘real thing’ and the inability for the general public to tell the difference has put my good friends out of work. These incredible, beautiful artists have laid their hard won talents to rest. Worst of all, they make more working in malls and delivering sodas then they ever did cutting puppets. The world confuses  me at times like these. How have humans come to place more monetary value in a bottle of Coke than in an inherited intangible cultural folk art form?

Certainly, this change is happening swiftly everywhere if it hasn’t already. Worst of all, this market change has cemented the demise of Shaanxi’s famed shadow puppet cutting apprenticeship system.

There are just a handful of cutters now working in Xi’an and only a few more in shadow puppetry’s original hot bed of Huaxian. I can’t help but wonder just how long they can all hang on. And, I can’t help wishing for a miracle.

Thanks for reading~

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Project

Nearly every time I talk with a shadow puppet practitioner in China about inheritance, future or preservation, “非物质文化遗产”or “The Intangible Cultural Heritage Project” is the next subject that follows. It’s a bit of an urban legend everywhere you go; everyone has heard of it, fewer know about the actual particulars of the project, and most rare are those who have actually received the benefits of its inception. But, as mixed as the tangible results may be, it is clear that the project’s reputation and shadow puppetry’s recent inscription onto the coveted list, has brought a sea change of pride and validation to the working artists.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Project (ICH) was started in 2003 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in an attempt to staunch the hemorrhaging of the world’s cultural practices before it was too late. So far, it’s registered nearly 300 intangible cultural heritage practices in dozens countries. Chinese shadow puppetry was inscribed on a national level just around the time I was ending my Fulbright trip in 2011. It was an instant boost in moral, a charge to the heart of shadow puppetry. It made it seem as though things were picking up, that help wasn’t too far away. However, talking with artists in 2012 and 2013, it was clear the realities hadn’t met with their expectations. But, what were the realities and why were those expectations universal? I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone. The larger truth slowly appeared as anything but concrete; anytime you mix politics with art, it gets complicated.

I finally sat down last summer to read through the available material UNESCO provides on the subject. The slickly designed pdf’s on Register of Best Safeguarding Practices and Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention were beautiful and inspiring, but did little to inform me of the day-to-day workings of the project. I was confused and long days of deep googling did nothing to clarify things. So, I decided to go to the source.

During my stop over in Beijing in early May, I popped into the UNESCO office for a meeting. My pestering had finally got the best of them and a gracious project manager, named Julien Glenat, agreed to give me an hour of his time. And, as suspected, much was cleared up in that little hour.

Julien clarified that UNESCO merely writes a convention, loosely, and leaves all of the regional implementation up to the local Ministries of Culture (MIC). In this way they are incredibly hands off. No accountability, no policing, just suggestions. Julien stated that “each country is quite free to implement it as they wish. More importantly, as the local community wishes. I think the central notion of the convention is the communities – what they consider as intangible heritage.” This distinction is important. UNESCO and the ICH project keeps the language intentionally vague in order to avoid exclusion of the world’s great diversity of ICH practices. Sometimes, though, the vagueness of language leaves governments confused, wishing instead for an ICH ‘to do’ list.

I asked specifically about China, whether this vagueness in language had stunted their efficiency in anyway. I was happy to hear that China has stepped up in the Eastern region as a role model and have been progressive in their work with ICH. They’ve even established an independent ICH office in nearly every province to assist with more efficacious planning. (Again, UNESCO’s offices only guide and assist; China’s Ministry of Culture does all of the actual implementation and policy making.) The Ministry of Culture is even working to establish an annual ICH conference with most of the bureau’s in attendance: science, education, business, etc in order to spread awareness and develop collaborations.

We talked for a while longer about the efficacy and possible corruption in the local offices, the awkward collaboration between politics and artists, and my worries about tacit learning and embodied transmission from master to apprentice (which is not mentioned in their ‘best practices for safeguarding’). After all my questions were answered, I asked Julien what his primary concerns for the immediate future were as he is there, everyday, witnessing the swift and irrevocable changes. He says he is most concerned with China’s tendency to direct their ICH woes to the tourism industry with a lot of speed and little reflection. I echo the same worry with Chinese shadow puppetry. Too often, when this shift is done in haste, it tends to only benefit the businesspeople, not the artists, and leaves the soul of the practice somewhere in limbo.

We bemoaned our shared feelings of inadequacy at times – is what we’re doing really effective? Does anyone care? Are we making things worse? But, Julient, who no doubt has thought about this more than I have, declared that there was “no small effort for culture.” And, I sincerely hope he’s right.

Thanks for reading~

*Thanks to Julien Glenat and the UNESCO Beijing office for their time.

A for Effort

In the midst of my chaotic China welcome, I snuck in a trip to the outskirts of Tangshan and an overdue visit to the Lu family cutters. It’s been almost three years since I’ve been out east of Beijing and I was anxious to check in.

I was happy to find the Lu family unchanged in the ways that matter: still ineffably warm, earnest and thriving in their multiple modalities. Both father and mother Lu, while busy helping son Tianxiang set up his new apartment in preparation for a wife, catch me up on their latest happenings. The apartment is on the fifth floor of the third building in a large complex of newly built identical high-rises, which are no stranger to the China skyline.

The apartment building is so new, there are only a few neighbors as of yet – everyone in a different state of preparation.


In the Lu’s apartment, the electric kang (traditionally a steam-heated brick bed) is the only piece of furniture in the place so far. His father is working on the baseboards, his mother on making new buckwheat husk pillows and Tianxiang is intent on patching in the light switches. The pride of having his own place shows in Tianxiang. He lights up when he talks about how he’ll decorate the walls with his father’s shadow puppetry and display his cutting tools on a specially designed shelf. I am honored to be the apartment’s first guest and sleep like a log on the kang.

The next morning, I see that the hustle and bustle of movement and improvement within the small household is no different from the small town of Han Cheng itself. Just a 20 minute bus ride outside of Tangshan proper, Han Cheng is starting to outgrow its dirt roads and farmland feel. There’s a few fast food chains setting up shop in the first floor of the new high-rise apartment buildings and the street’s nightlife reveals a swarming population of younger folk. Tianxiang’s building complex is just one of a few that now break up the previously flat horizon of corn and millet fields.

Shortly after breakfast, Tianxiang takes me to the small village another 20 minutes further out of Tangshan, named Damengang. Here, in collaboration with a few progressive educators, Tianxiang has been developing shadow puppet curriculum with a small village school. The program has been a success from the beginning, clearly evident with a tour through the school’s exhibition room. The pieces on display are creative, careful and wonderful.

plastic headThis cutting sample is made by a student out of thin, flexible plastic – a more economic learning material than leather.

Later, I am privileged to meet the artists themselves. In the hallway, a band of students are studiously at work carving leather pieces on wax boards and painting the finished parts with watercolor.



In the music room, there is another group manipulating shadow puppets with help of a local troupe and when they see their teacher has arrived, they ready themselves for performance. We are treated to a short set of shows with students at the helm of each. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a bit seeing the young and the old working together behind the screen.

young and old

Like everything else he does, Tianxiang has created this program with the utmost care and thought. From the choice of plastic for the beginning cutters to the beautiful wax boards for the advanced students, this is no afternoon activity. A well-laid lesson plan of shadow puppet making integrated with performance practice, encouraged by both its long tradition and the pressing need for creativity — this is the kind of thing shadow puppetry needs. Who better to inherit and evolve the craft than China’s youth?

Tianxiang drops me off at his new apartment after a full day at the school. Shortly, he will head back to his parents house for the night. There isn’t much that needs to be said. He knows how much it has meant to me and I know how much it means to him. This work, this toil he offers on his days off, free nights and free hours from his day job in the city — it is something. They cycle of inspiration continues and we carry on.

the fam at their old homeThe Lus at their “old home” in western Han Cheng

Thanks for reading~

For previous stories on the Lus: 

As The World Turns

I’m back in mainland China for a 10 week fieldwork trip, focusing on shadow puppet troupes and puppet making methods in Gansu and Yunnan. Somehow I finished the first year in my PhD program and left for China within the span of just a few days. I’ll try not to ever do that again. The mental quiet and focus that the school year has demanded has softened my fieldwork rigor for the moment. I was wholly unprepared for the deluge of stimuli and the unforgiving pace of Beijing upon arrival. But, slowly, I can feel myself steeling up again: remembering to carry toilet paper and water with me, abandoning my expectations that anything will start on time and always (always) managing to recheck my assumptions.

As usual, I’m starting my trip in Beijing. It’s the perfect place to recover from jetlag, get my belly used to the oil and spice and get my brain firing in Mandarin again. It is also home to a growing number of shadow puppet friends from all walks of life. Beijing, from the beginning, has never been a place I thought I would invest much time into, as most of what remains here are modern shadow puppet troupes. Still, it grows increasingly undeniable that China’s capitol is the center of many things in this country, which continues to draw artists and innovators, including shadow lovers. Within just a few calls to some of my pals, I see that I’ve lucked out with my timing: so and so has an exhibition, so and so has a new theatre and so and so is opening their new shadow puppet collaboration tonight. Never a dull moment in China, ever.

Hanfeizi, the brother and sister company I first profiled in 2011, is currently busy with a few projects. Most notably, they are participating in an exhibition of handicrafts for the ART BEIJING expo happening. I attended on press day, a day before the exhibition officially opened, and was impressed to see a large showing of journalists, supporters and general enthusiasts. The shadow puppet corner takes up one of the 4 main walls and boasts a small, but classy collection of Dongbei style shadow puppets.

HFZ 2Hanxing, left, beside two of the event organizers, his father and mother.

Liu Laoshi and the Longzaitian Troupe are also doing well. This troupe of little people remain some of the best trained and most enthusiastic students of shadow puppetry in the country. The manager, curious about my continued returns (this being my third in 3 years), decided I must be serious about shadow puppetry and welcomed me in with decided earnest. He explained that while the troupe’s reputation was growing steadily, with three branches in Beijing and 3 outposts in other provinces, the financial situation was still tight. The government does assist the troupe with things such as rehearsal and performance space, but does little else. They are still mostly subsisting on commissioned collaborations, ticket prices and some private funding. Because I had toted my friend Serge along as well, we got an extra special private showing of their prized blacklight show. So much neon! 


Over at the Shichahai Shadow Puppet Themed Hotel, which is one of the nicest boutique hutong hotels around, my friend’s Larry Reed and Maomao have just teamed up together to launch a new shadow puppet performance of The Butterfly Lovers for the hotel’s audience. It was exciting to attend their opening night and I was impressed with the amount of work they managed to accomplish in one short week of rehearsal. It’s a great story to translate into shadow and will add to their growing repertoire of shows.

SCH HotelReading for the audience. Isn’t that screen gorgeous?

Buttefly lovers

As the luck of my timing continued, last year’s hutong shadow tour team is all in Beijing at the same time: Julie, my great friend who works with Miao textiles and shadows and Serge, my friend from Holland who works in contemporary painting and performance. Recently, I connected Serge to my friend Tianxiang to help him make leather puppets for some upcoming experimental animated films. Together, Julie, Serge and I did what we like to do. We made some shadow friends, took them to the hutong alleyways and lit up the night.

Hutong Perf

Hutong Perf 1

All in all, a raucous and unrelenting beginning to my trip. I have no false expectations that this good timing will continue, only grateful to have been apart of the convergence. Can’t wait to see what the next two months has in store.

Thanks for reading~