A Revolution in Shadows

Even though shadow puppetry was widely banned throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), performances still took place. Most of these were pre-approved stories and dramas that towed the line for the New Republic of China, replacing stories of warlords and emperors and other eradicated roles in society.

Many troupes preferred to lay down their shadows all together, rather than take up this new directive. Some troupes weren’t given the choice. Since the 1980s, these shows have not been performed much, if at all. And, when asked about them, I usually get a muttered and incomprehensible answer. Probably, it’s a subject most would like to forget.

Still, I love what few Communist-era shadow puppets I have been able to glimpse. The aesthetic is so different, so modern and simplified – and still so striking. Politics do nothing to sway me here – the puppets are beautiful. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading and looking~

These puppets are all housed in the Luanzhou Shadow Puppet Museum in Hebei Province.

Note: The soldiers in green are Communist soldiers; soldiers in gold/yellow are Guomindang (Kuomintang) or the National Revolutionary’s Army soldiers.












If you Build It, They Might Not Come

I last visited the small city of Luanzhou in 2012 (previously known as Luanxian). I was taken by Tianxiang Lu who graciously introduced me to Mrs. Guo, a longtime fan of his family’s shadow puppets, and a host of other incredible Luanzhou shadow puppet artists. It was a bonus at the time. I hadn’t done any of my own legwork to prepare for the trip – I just showed up and was given a beautifully curated tour of all that Luanzhou shadow puppetry had to offer along with a few formal meals. This kind of ceremony is usually only reserved for those who hold some official standing, public office, purse-strings of some kind, etc. My status as a freelance artist/novice fieldworker rarely gets any fanfare – which is usually to my benefit – but Luanzhou city clearly had an abundance of enthusiasm, resources and overt desire to push their local brand of shadow puppetry.

Like so many of the small fourth and fifth tiered cities in China, Luanzhou is constantly competing for government funding and recognition. They vie for the ‘if you build it, they will come’ money, raising new apartment complexes, ‘old’ towns, river walks and anything else they think can entice the next wave of rural immigrants. Much of the time, these small cities’ best bet to prove themselves distinct from the other hundreds of small cities is to brand themselves culturally. Much folk art is preserved this way. In my travels, the three best regions for shadow puppetry continuance in the country is in the three regions where a small town has chosen to place their shadow puppetry as the keystone in their cultural portfolio: Bazhong, Sichuan Province, Huanxian, Gansu Province and Luanzhou, Hebei Province.

Of course, this has downsides too. I’m sure the artists practicing the other art forms that weren’t chosen aren’t too happy about the singular focus. But, in the game of safeguarding and preservation triage, some things have to die so that something else can live.

Luanzhou has been aggressively expanding their city and utilizing shadow puppetry as a star player since about 2010. When we were there in 2012, the city had already built an out-of-scale mainstreet, which dwarfed the modest housing on either side. Their new river walk was approximately the width of Shanghai’s bund, but laid empty much of the time. The city had even just erected a monstrous new ‘old town’, which was aimed at attracting local tourism. And even though the ‘old town’ was then only populated by eager locals, capitalizing on the early promise of new commerce, there seemed an optimistic energy in the city’s future. For me, the most exciting news was the plan to create a shadow puppet museum. I would have to return in 2016.

I went back just a few weeks ago, again accompanied by Tianxiang, to check in on Luanzhou and their museum. We took the new high-speed train from Tangshan and were there in 17 minutes, instead of the usual hour. Mrs. Guo greeted us with a car and a banquet. Then, we went to the museum.



It’s gorgeous. It’s huge and thorough and presented better than any other shadow puppet museum exhibit I’ve seen in China. There are rows and rows of beautiful pieces, videos with headphones that accompany many of the 2D dioramas and even a 3D diorama section that features a realistic wax-figured shadow puppeteer. At the end of the exhibit, you can even try the puppets for yourself!






Only trouble is, no one is ever there. The museum is, ostensibly, closed. All the time. No funding to keep it staffed and probably no reason to. Luanzhou’s population hasn’t take off like the city thought it would. With a small local citizenry and no tourists, who would come to this beautiful museum more than once? Sure, if you have a good reason, you can call the people who know the right people and they’ll open it for you. But otherwise, the place remains a secret garden – a treasure unseen.

Rest assured, I snapped a picture of every single thing in that collection. No telling when the officials will get wind of this and turn it into something I’ll love a lot less.

Thanks for reading~


Some extra pictures of the two, 20-foot-long leather ‘shadow puppet style’ mural







一生一世 // One’s entire life

During my last visit to Tangshan city in Hebei province, I could already feel a wave of development coming. Getting off the bus (the only way to Tangshan from Beijing at the time) the new Train Station loomed tall overhead. It would be finished in 2015, they said. Other changes were felt in nearby suburbs and villages: huge high-rise apartment complexes and infrastructure changes in transportation. This time, I rode in on Tangshan’s new train – a world away from that long distance bus – and was welcomed to the city with vast marble floors, soaring curved ceilings and lots of people waiting to head somewhere else.

Tianxiang, of the amazing Lu Family, greeted me outside the new exits. We chatted as we got onto the city bus and rode out to Hancheng, hopped in an electric tricycle and were taken to the front door of Tianxiang’s new apartment. So much has happened since my last visit to his unfinished apartment in 2014. Tianxiang got married! And, as he informs me, with characteristically humble tones while riding the bus, they’re expecting their first child in July!

The joy that is all this good news carries us with ebullience until we reach the front door of his new, modern apartment. During my last visit in 2014, I stayed here even before he did: baseboard weren’t in, water wasn’t hooked up – even still, it was a vast change from the family’s old courtyard home.

Tianxiang’s wife, Zhangwei, opens the door with a cute belly bump. She’s gracious and kind and she’s made the place a cozy, tidy home. Alongside the new fixtures and amenities, their wedding photos are everywhere.



I love seeing them in their finest, just above the couch, the cabinets and the computer. Soon, his mother and father arrive.

Instead of diving into the shadow puppet stuff, we spend the day catching up. I clumsily assist Zhangwei in cooking us a fabulous lunch, we watch their wedding video (1 hour and 12 minutes of pure fun and firecrackers), and take a trip to the local flea market. In and amongst the news and the updates, we realized we’ve been friends for five years. Five years of sharing our work and struggles and successes and moves and marriages. It’s great to see the Lu family and Tianxiang so happy.

In the next few days, we dive in. We head to their old house, check out the current work and talk about the present circumstances.




Things have gotten worse for handmade shadow puppetry since 2014, which was already in a downslide from 2012’s machine-made shadow puppet takeover. This year the price for the Lu’s corn harvest was also the lowest in recent history. Luckily, the Lu’s aren’t in immediate danger of losing their livelihood as Tianxiang still makes a solid living as a computer technician in the city and his sister is still working a financial job in the outskirts of Beijing. Still, things have changed. Tianxiang’s father seems a bit more prone to either exhausted silence or short rants about the good old days. His mother, buoyed by Tianxiang’s settled future, is more open about her indifference to shadow puppetry, despite her acquired skills in applying color.

Tianxiang, too, has found his focus shifting. He shows me the ad-hoc cutting studio he sets up in his new living room from time to time, but he’s cutting much less than he was. Understandably.


With the future of handmade shadow puppetry already seemingly gone, a new life partner and the next generation on the way, he is caught exactly where everyone else is: this lifetime. When I ask him if he’ll teach his kid to cut shadow puppets, he says ‘yes’, but with practicality in his voice. History is important, but so is the future.

Of all my friends and participants in this shadow puppet journey, I worry least about Tianxiang and the Lu family. I’m not exactly sure why that is other than an intuition that’s developed over the years. There is a pure heartedness to them – not to be conflated with naïveté. It means that they’re always the right side, even if it’s the practical side, of the changes. Tianxiang has been open to collaborations and adaptations of his knowledge while also being equally ardent about supporting his father and the Tangshan style of shadow puppetry. This kind of diversification is just what shadow puppetry needs: creative preservation alongside all the other more ‘traditional’ methods of safeguarding or institutionalizing our dying art forms.

Soon, our visit must come to an end. I leave his new wife, his new apartment and take a taxi to the new train station and get on the new train back Beijing. They’re building a fast train from Beijing to Tangshan, set to open 2018. Looking forward to another return and another lesson on how to navigate these oncoming developments, expansions and changes with grace and integrity.

~Thanks for reading


L>R: Lu Fuzeng, Xu Yishu, Myself, Zhang Wei, Lu Tianxiang

Shadows and Haze: returning for fieldwork

I’m back. Back in China after over a year away. I was reticent to leave, wondering again how it would be possible to pause life in North America, missing wasteful hot showers and clean air already. But, just a few minutes after hailing a cab from Beijing’s International Airport to my new lodgings, my taxi driver took a toothpick out of his pocket, tipped his head and did a thorough ear cleaning with it. My first thought was, this can’t be safe – especially at 45 miles per hour. My second thought was, I’m home.

Ever since I first visited China in 1996, the place has resonated with me on the deepest levels. No other place on earth has vibrated for me in this way, not even in nature. When I was 16, I assumed this was a latent genetic familiarity from my ¼ Cantonese heritage, ringing with pleasure at a return ‘home’. I still feel this is part of the puzzle. Over time, I have also come to believe that this tacit communion is also a simple luck of innate tendencies: to favor mealtime over all other times, to emphasize ritual whenever possible, to tirelessly strengthen family and friendships, to unlock a pictographic language embedded with symbolism, to eat very very very spicy things, etc. The distant, sometimes so-polite-it-can-feel-cold Midwestern culture is also in my bones, but it doesn’t ring the inner bell quite like the absolute din of sitting around a banquet table in China.

Of course, these differences in culture and society bring with it another set of pressures and issues, pressures that I am fortunate enough to only dip into for months at a time before I go home to North America. So, who can truly say? Maybe, the toe that I dip in is enough and too much would prove the ‘greener on other side’ theorem true. For now, all I know is that when I am here, I am resonating in a way I don’t anywhere else.

And, if China resonates with me on this level, shadow puppetry just tips the scale. There is, still, nothing else that enraptures me like this form and all the practitioners, families, enthusiasts and scholars who are apart of it.

This chunk of fieldwork is being graciously funded by a Hanban/Confucius Institute Joint PhD Research Fellowship (孔子新汉学计划) and an additional Concordia MEESR Travel Grant. My research is supported by Beijing Normal University and the Folk Culture and Literature department, in particular, Professor Yang Lihui who is a Chinese folk culture specialist.

As I’ve just entered the ABD (all-but-dissertation) portion of my PhD work, I’m going to be focusing my fieldwork a bit differently than before. Instead of serving as an apprentice with my co-participants, I’m shifting gears to include more formal interviews and inquiries into Chinese shadow puppetry’s current situation and possible future outcomes. This work will be co-theorized with the participants and be included with the knowledge from my previous fieldwork in the thesis. Which I will, of course, be writing furiously as I travel around China…we hope.

Either way, I am so happy to be back and resonating in hazy Beijing, ready to begin the shadow puppet hunt again.

Thanks for reading~

Ancient Old Things

I just wrote a small essay on my attraction to Ancient Old Things at No More Potlucks.com and wanted to share it here as well. (Originally published at http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/ancient-old-things-annie-katsura-rollins/)

I work with old things, really old things: Chinese shadow puppets. The intricately carved leather figures are old and have an even older history. And, every time I hold one, I feel their accumulated past, heavy in my hands: their age is on them and in them.

I was initially pulled to them because of this oldness, this weight. Living in the modern Western world, I feel increasingly distressed by our growing preoccupation with newness and planned obsolescence. I still hate to throw things in the garbage or buy something I can’t pass onto the next generation – but there are only so many times you can darn a sock or glue your pleather wallet back together. The stuff of our world is meant for now and only now.

Certainly, my attraction to the shadow puppets was motivated by a fetishization and nostalgia around ancientness: a hope that by sheer proximity, the shadow puppets would teach me something better, smarter, wiser. And they did. Mostly, that nothing is forever and old is just a word to express the impermanence of everything.

In the fictional world of absolute permanence, the words old, age, and ancient have less meaning. Without a beginning or end point, what can age communicate? Not much, with all things existing equally alongside each other. But in this real world of absolute impermanence, old or aged importantly delineates our current place on an individual timeline in relation to someone/something else’s – because no age is absolute. I mean, how old is old? And how old is ancient? My old is not your old. North America’s old is not China’s old. Humans’ ancient is not the earth’s ancient. Even objects that seem permanent in their relation to a human lifespan are not immune. Stonehenge will eventually disintegrate, as will the pyramids, the palaces, and the pineapples. “A thing is just a slow event” (Stanley Eveling, quoted in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 59).

Read the rest at the link below, with accompanying paintings:

Full article at http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/ancient-old-things-annie-katsura-rollins/

~Thanks for reading!

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.

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.


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


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.




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~