Look Again: shadows as metonym for a new way of seeing

In the midst of a hearty work session the other day, an email came in from across the world, letting me know that some of my blog links weren’t working. I promptly went to check on them, opened up the home page and was reminded of my blogging silence as of late. No posts in three months! Because this blog has acted as the main mode of communicating my research throughout the last four years, I had somehow subconsciously assumed it would remain as busy as I was – regardless of my efforts towards it. I have often been accused of hopeless optimism.

But the inactivity on the blog is by no means a direct correlation with my thinking and doing as of late. Perhaps the opposite. I have been occupied with finishing my last semester of PhD coursework and have just entered into the comprehensive testing period of my degree. By day, you can find me tucked deep into books on speculative realism, dark objects, performing object theory and object-oriented ontology; by night, you can find me staring blankly at a wall, desperately trying to process what I’ve read and tie that in with my embodied experience in the field. It’s not easy, but it’s also surprisingly fulfilling. Thinking and stewing and marinating so often goes unnoticed as invisible labor, but the work is as real as lifting bricks. Even without putting words on paper, the work is happening – my brain is sweating.

Much has come out of this invisible labor of reading and thinking. Most of it is still undigested and too nascent to publish here, but for me, the thinking on shadows has become clearer. Or, more specifically, my ability to articulate my belief in what shadows are and what they do is becoming clearer.

***

In a child’s life, there is a crucial stage of development around the age of three or four. Before this age, a child interprets that dark thing that follows them on a sunny day as a material object. Games are often created to ‘step on’ or ‘bury’ the dark thing until it relinquishes its game of follow, but never to any avail. Pile on the stones and the dark thing appears again; run as fast as you can, but you will never outrun your dark thing; the dark thing ever-faithful to its subject.

After a while, a child begins to comprehend the physical immateriality of this dark thing: non-dimensional, lacking substance and therefore nothing. It is simply the absence of light. And is that not what a shadow is? Nothingness? The actual representation of the absence of something: light? Is there anything else in our known world that so tirelessly carries this task of representing absence? By their unfailing duty to show us distorted absences of the very things we humans know to be truths (trees, humans, structures, clouds, nighttime), is the shadow there to confirm or subvert?

At some point in a human’s development, the shadows recede into their own darkness. When we ‘know’ what they are, they begin to mesh into the rest of the busy world around us, just part of the milieu. The knowledge that shadows are the necessary complement to envisioning the three-dimensional world is lost on us. The knowledge that nighttime is the world-in-shadow is even further from consciousness. There is seeing and there is night, but there are fewer shadows.

Still, shadows play on the subconscious at some level. For such an occularcentric species, visual darkness and ambiguity seem to play upon our deepest insecurities.

The developmental trajectory of the human and the shadow that I have briefly sketched here traces a parallel with a Platonic understanding of enlightenment and its corollary with knowledge: we seek to know and to do so, we must walk away from the darkness and toward the light.

This does not sit well with me.

I have never equated light with knowledge and truth as absolute. Darkness, for me, is a truer truth: the truth that knowing-all is a seduction and a farce. And through their immaterial but significant presence, shadows expose that fragility and hubris. Shadows, for me, are just as true and real and thing-like as the thing that enjoys three-dimensionality. Maybe even more so because of its inherent elusive essence. I believe shadow puppetry, or the human manipulation of shadows for storytelling, is the many millennia-old practice of dwelling in the unknowable: an important and humble place for humans to return to time and time again.

***

There are many more thoughts that dig into immaterial things and objecthood, shadows as signifiers and ambassadors, the healthy place that is unknowing, etc. But, I’ll leave this here for now and end my unintended silence.

Thanks for reading~

 

Paradise Lost – Part 2

{Continued from Paradise Lost – Part 1.}

After a disheartening few days in Heshun Ancient Scenic Area and my sobering discoveries about the Tengchong Shadow Puppet Troupe, I went back to my hostel room to regroup.

Since I’d arrived in paradise, I’d been slowly developing a rash all over my body. This day, today, I’d hit my peak. My skin screamed out for hot water or dry sheets – any place with less humidity. Part of me felt like the increased discomfort outside was simply a manifestation of my growing unease inside. This whole trip, supposedly a triumphant return to Chinese shadow puppet apprenticeship, had turned into a long, sad trail of stories. Although my skin is telling me to run, I know I must stay. I need at least one more day to visit the Master Liu in Liuzha Zhai. 

The next day, I hustle to organize a ride out to the village and make sure the master is at home via his nephew, who is away on a job. The last time I visited Liuzha Zhai in 2011, I had been given a ride by the one of the former members of the troupe and the day had been filled with glorious family fun, community celebrations and stunning food. This time, it is just me – trying to find my way back along the breadcrumbs that might still be there.

A few buses get me back to Tengchong city proper. There, I hunt down directions to Liuzha Zhai. In a town any larger than this, it would be impossible to find someone who knows the way. As it is, everyone knows the way. The easiest path emerges as a bus to Huoshan, the famous volcano monument and then a private ride from there.

The tourist buses in town also have the lonely feel of off-season. Just villagers now, trying to get back to their village after selling their morning’s worth of wares in town or kids returning home from school. I seem to be the only possible tourist on the bus and I’m not even heading to Huoshan. After I dismount, I quickly make my way back to the biggest intersection near the old volcano and ask for a car that might take me to Liuzha Zhai. Within minutes, we are speeding down the road in a beige colored metal box. And, within just a few more minutes, the village’s gate comes into view. I hop off and make my way down a side road into the village.

This little side road feels familiar.

IMG_8008
I’ve walked it before. The tall brick walls of the village homes are only bested by the old growth of the trees that creep over top of them. The canopy feels warm and cool at the same time, casting a green glow on everything below. The relative quiet of village life compared with the din of a small town is noticeable. The mind quiets as well. I walk slowly even though I am anxious to get somewhere.

I know the master’s house is close – well, everything is relatively close in a small village. I ask a few passersby and they point me in the direction I am headed. A few missed turns and dead ends and finally, I am there.

With a timid knock, I step over the threshold of the master’s big red doorway.

IMG_8026

I meet his wife again who tells me the master is out but will be home shortly. I wait.

IMG_8045

She seems tired and not interested in talking, so I let the silence linger. In a few minutes, the master comes waddling through the doorway. We grin and I let him lead the way.

IMG_8066 copy

Out first is a collection of machine-made puppets, which everyone has nowadays. I admire them; let him set them on some white foam backgrounds and we talk about their coloring and design. Next, some simpler handmade puppets depicting the common ethnic minorities in Yunnan province are placed into my hands.

IMG_8038Modern Hand-cut Ethnic Minority Shadow Puppets

The leather feels smooth, beautiful and though simple, the aesthetic is satisfying. Finally, I ask him to bring out his oldest puppets.

IMG_8048A 100+ year old Yunnan shadow puppet, made by Master Liu’s ancestors. 

The workmanship, the thick hide and the strength of the design is mesmerizing. It trumps all here.

Puppets are always my favorite thing. I could look at them for days on end and remain in their differences, their cutting mastery, their design logic – but today, I’m distracted. Even the beauty of the oldest puppet can’t keep me. I want to know how the master’s doing. To understand how he was in 2011 and to see him now, my heart sinks. The master has clearly been drinking at lunch, he has a terrible cough and he’s listless. I start gently by asking him about the troupe, his nephew, the changes. “How many performances do you have per year now?” “Not many”, “How is the troupe doing?” “The young people don’t like to participate anymore.” It seems to be too much already. His answers are patient, but curt enough for me to know I shouldn’t plunge too much further in. We small talk about big stuff: how many shadow puppet players from his generation are left, the power TV seems to have over the young people and his nephew. The answers are clear enough.

We talk for over an hour. I feel paralyzed. Part of me feels like I’m wasting his time and part of me never wants to leave. I can’t tell if my presence might give him a small remembrance that his work is meaningful or if it’s simply a nuisance that I won’t stop asking questions that have little direct meaning in his world. At some point it does feel greedy and I see his energy flagging. I buy a few modest modern puppets (hand-cut) and we say our goodbyes.

Prematurely, I’m back out onto the road, under the canopy, feeling lost. Much more lost than when I came.

Instead of heading directly to catch another car heading back to Huoshan, I decide to take a long walk around the village again. Nothing else seems to have changed from three years ago. Small children run and play, the small weekday market is doing modest business on the main road and though the prayer hall and the theatre are locked, they don’t look as though they’ve been left alone for too long.

IMG_8149

IMG_8188

IMG_8195

It’s true what they say. Some things change and some things stay the same. So, I hitch a car back into town and do my best to keep my chin up.

Thanks for reading~

Small is Beautiful

The unimaginable has happened.

In the past few weeks, a strange and lucky set of events have led me to the smallest accomplishment of my life. I have just cut a set of 1”-scale traditional leather Chinese shadow puppets for display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms.

I first saw the Thorne Miniature Rooms when I was a young teen. I’m not sure how or why I was in Chicago, or even how we made our way to the legendary Institute, but the one thing I have never forgotten about were the miniature rooms: glowing boxes of exquisite smallness along mazes of darkened hallways. Once captured in their impossibility, I didn’t want to be let go.

Georgian Dining RoomThe Art Institute of Chicago’s Thorne Miniature Rooms: English Dining Room of the Georgian Period, 1770-90, c. 1937

Part of the spell is their natural beauty, but much of it stems from the perfect comprehensibility of, say, a 1700 Georgian Dining room the size of a shoebox. The observer feels both godlike and humbled by the sheer reducibility of that which seems irreducible. And they are beautiful. All of these rooms are handmade by master craftsman according to the particular specifications of Mrs. James Ward Thorne. All 68 of them. Certainly, seeing these rooms so early on was instrumental in my developing fascination with all things handmade, representative and miniature.

Fast-forward some 20-odd years later and on an unsuspecting morning in October, I received an email from the keeper of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. She was looking for information about Chinese shadow puppetry! With plans to highlight their miniature Chinese room this year, they had hoped to place some traditional shadow puppets within.

My mind reeled. My eyes were wide. I might have been drooling.

What a convergence of wonderful, impossible things.

Instantly, we were in a flurry of exchanges: discussing performances, regional styles and cutting techniques. I offered to give the miniatures a try; wisely giving myself an out if the 1” scale bested me. But of course, I had to try.

{Now, in case you’re not sure, 1” scale means every foot is reduced to 1”. Or 1’=1”. For reference, this means that your laptop computer would be reduced to about 1” or 1.5” wide.}

My first attempt was, well, awful. It seemed as though my monstrously large blade miss-cut the paper-thin leather on nearly every single pass – but I couldn’t even see well enough to tell. My neck ached from crouching eye-level to the table and I was barely holding onto the cut piece with a needle tool. Impossible. Even my first attempt at painting the mangled piece of leather was hideous.

My obsession with the miniature rooms and the knowledge that someone could make those meant I had to be able to make these – this is what pushed me forward. I tried and tried again: smaller, closer, better. Or, more accurately: achier, blinder, worse. In case you’re wondering, there is no god-complex inherent in making minis. More so, the opposite is true: you simply feel like a bumbling, mitten-handed oaf, swearing to yourself the entire time.

At some point, the zen set in. The beauty of working on something so small is that time stands still. In order to work at that scale, everything else must recede. You must forget about your own size, your own weight and volume and become a smaller, quieter, more immaterial conduit for miniature to pass through you. And, somehow it did.

IMG_8548Lady White Snake, 1 1/2″ tall: cowhide, string, paint

IMG_8637Lady White Snake in Shadow

IMG_8643Lady White Snake in scale with the gigantic shadow-hand!

IMG_8560A bridge, 1″ tall: leather, paint

IMG_8610The bridge in shadow

IMG_8612In perspective…such a little bridge!

XuxianLady White Snake’s lover, Xuxian, 1  1/2″ scale: leather, string, paint.

Xuxian ShadowXuxian in Shadow

Now, as I return to the real world back from the small, everything seems large, inexact and – well – lacking exquisiteness. It’s true what they say: small is beautiful.

Thanks for reading~

(PS: The shadow puppets should be up sometime this winter)

Paradise Lost – Part 1

After a twenty-two hour train ride from Chengdu province to Kunming, I hopped a 10 hour bus ride from Kunming directly to Tengchong. I had ridden a similar bus three years ago when I came the first time, but Yunnan province has worked hard to improve the roads since. We sailed over the highways and stopped at newly built rest stops with impressive restroom facilities. I had forgotten, however, that once you get towards the far west of Yunnan, you have no choice but to start weaving in and amongst the increasingly tall mountain ranges. Somewhere in the midst of the last three hours of hairpin turns, I made a mental note to add travel notes of this nature to my Evernote log: “Hellish bus ride! Remember to take Dramamine 4 hours in, you dummy!” Not sure how I managed to keep my lunch.

We finally arrived, to my great relief, at the lonely longride bus station in Tengchong city proper just before dusk. From there, the puppeteers had told me to find them in their new location just northwest of the city in Heshun. I hopped a cheap taxi and we drove swiftly out of the city and into the green. Yunnan is so blessed with natural beauty it puts everyone, everyplace and everything else to shame. I’m not exaggerating. I would have been jealous of Yunnan had she attended my high school.

Quickly, we arrived at a beautiful little village nestled at the nape of a large mountain range.

IMG_4079

Water rushed between rivers and small lake below, and the sky was lit up with the natural fireworks of a southwestern sunset. Compared with the very nice but predictable city experience I’d had last time, these new digs felt like paradise. We passed some tourist guesthouses and what looked like a host of new construction, but I didn’t think twice about it. I was so happy not to be turning on a bus or stuck in a city somewhere that I went to sleep at the hostel with a smile on my face.

Three years ago, I visited Tengchong for a few weeks. I had met the troupe at the Huanxian Shadow Puppet Conference and had been so impressed with their rough and bold designs that I decided to make the trek down. After my trip, I declared it one of the best and most sustainable situations of any that I had come across in my travels; the government supported most of their work as stewards of Tengchong’s historical culture to leave them time to create new work and continue performing traditionally for their village nearby. They even had some young apprentices who were beginning to master performance techniques and showed interest in beginning puppet making.

The memory of that trip was keeping me optimistic. I figured their move to the tourist area of Heshun was simply following the tourism crowd, but that everything, probably, remained the same more or less.

I awoke with promise the next morning. All I had to do was find the troupe and begin the fun. They had replied to my early communication with short messages like, “Annie, we welcome you!” and “whenever you get here, we are also here!”

As I set off, I realized I was disoriented in this new village. The further I walked, the further I had to reevaluate my understanding of what this paradise was. It was beautiful, for sure, but it was also confusing. Local Baizu minorities were manning much of the food stalls, there were costumed docents in front of the historical temples and there were old folks selling trinkets all along the roadside. But, no one was there. Just me. They looked at me like I was an apparition. They didn’t even try to harass me for my patronage. They just let me pass silently onto the next onlooker. And so it went.

Soon, I got to what was clearly the ‘center’ of this village and here, things became clearer. Modern cafés, jade shops, restaurants and clothing shops lined the small winding streets and cobblestone alleys all the way from the mountain bottom to the water’s edge. The signs began to advertise for the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area. Closer to the base of the village, I spied an expansive parking lot, a main gate and tourist vans by the dozens.

The Heshun Ancient Scenic Area is a new project masterminded by an enterprising Chinese businesswoman who somehow bought visitation rights to the village and developed it for tourism.

M538These are the types of images that come up when you do an internet search for Heshun Ancient Scenic Area.

12_20120405100403_JUJBJUNEJUNCJUIzJUI5JUM1JUQ1JUYyNQ==More idyllic PR images for Heshun Scenic Area.

The main gate ticket is 80 yuan and gains you entrance to the ‘village’, the shops and a handful of old temples. The main entrance is a confusing layout of shops that look more like museums than anything else. And this is where the shadow puppet shop is.

Although the development is one of the nicest I’ve seen, it’s still a development. It has the soulless quality of the copy. And, worst of all, we visited in the low season of rainy June, making the entire place feel more like a movie set than an active village. The longer we stayed, the creepier it got. I couldn’t help but feel for the earnest trinket sellers and restaurant owners who prepared daily for the sad trickle of guests.

I waited at the empty shadow puppet store for a few minutes before I texted my friends. They were on their way for the 4:30 performance. The troupe of four arrived at 4:27, said their brief ‘hellos’ to me with much grinning; then flicked on the lights and CD player to set up for…Turtle and the Crane. Next up? The story of how Er Kuai (a famed dish of Tengchong) got its name. These were the same shows they’d performed nightly in 2011.

IMG_4106

IMG_4125

My face dropped as I realized they’ve been performing these shows twice a day, 365 days a year for over three years.

This mistake happens to me often; I assume. It’s a bad habit as an ethnographer. So often I don’t notice the damage it has done until it’s too late. The confidence I had developed for the troupe’s stability in 2011, coupled with the responses I had recently received from the troupe members, had led me to believe the troupe was doing well – maintaining stasis. As I sat through the same two shows, however, with a troupe half the size of what it was, performing in a tourist area in recession, it was clear that Tengchong shadow puppetry had undergone severe changes.

After the show was over, the group’s new leader, Fu Guanguo, her young helper, Qiuju, and a few others headed to tea and dinner. Within an hour, everything was made clear. The troupe’s deal with the government in 2011, their lucrative gig playing to the nightly tourist buses at government-supported restaurants, had dissolved. They then moved the Troupe to the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area, employed as a ‘local Tengchong cultural act’, to enliven the tourist area and help validate that 80 yuan entrance fee. Their job was simply to perform the same shows everyday at 9:30 and 4:30 and if no one came, which they very often didn’t, they didn’t have to perform. With decreased income and almost no audience, the troupe divided.

The main master and his direct descendents, the core of the troupe in 2011, had all returned to ‘real’ jobs in order to provide for their families. Fu Guanguo, her nephew Liu Chaokan, Qiuju and her friend Liu Rong, can afford to keep working as puppeteers because they are not the main income earners in their families. With little income to start with and a tenuous future for the tourist village, innovation and development within the troupe will likely never happen.

I was starting to get that creeping feeling again, one that’d I’d also had in Xi’an when I visited a few weeks back. The decline is happening too fast, the changes too slippery and I can barely keep up with the news of it, let alone the research. But, at that moment, what can you do? I could only take a deep breath, be present and keep moving forward.

IMG_4136

Over an incredibly simple dinner of home-cooked pig’s feet stew, fresh local vegetables and my favorite sour tomato sauce, the mood grew quiet and contemplative. All of us, quietly torn between what we want and what is. We parted ways reluctantly and went out into the dark, empty alleyways under a light, warm rain.

{Continued in Paradise Lost – Part 2}

Thanks for reading~

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.

1

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_7651

IMG_7664

IMG_7667

IMG_7668Rooftop Terrace Detail

IMG_7679

IMG_7693Roof Detail

IMG_7727

IMG_7729

IMG_7807A Water Monster (Crab) from the White Snake Story 

IMG_7812Another Water Monster  (Turtle) from the White Snake Story

IMG_7848

IMG_7855

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.

IMG_7641

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.

IMG_7326

legs

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.

IMG_7379

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.

IMG_7908

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.

IMG_3743

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.

IMG_7637

IMG_7931

IMG_7912

IMG_7928

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.

IMG_7320

IMG_7914

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.

IMG_3484

Part Two of my work in Gansu to follow…

Thanks for reading~