Monthly Archives: March 2011

It’s Not Like Learning to Ride A Bike

Once you learn, you can forget.

My second lesson at the ZhongHua Shadow Company in the Summer Palace park school was an exercise in patience at my own aptitude.

Liu LaoShi started me off with ‘walking the woman’.  Your left hand holds the main body rod of the puppet and your right hand controls the two hand controllers.  Watching Liu LaoShi handle the control rods would make anyone thing this was a piece of cake.

See a video of Liu LaoShi ‘walking the woman’ here.  Or just look at the pictures below…

(Thanks to Don and Alex S.  for showing me how to embed video!)

Hand position 1 – Liu LaoShi. (Pardon the bad photo – it’s a video still)

Hand Position 2 – Liu LaoShi.

I have ‘walked the woman’ before with Shaanxi style puppets – but Beijing puppets are about twice the size and have different hand positions.  So I gave it my first go.

First try.  Huh?

Wait, show me that again.


One more time.

Attempt after attempt after attempt.  I was then put under the guidance of Zhang Ju, a patient and apt puppeteer, who would come to my aid when she sensed confusion.

Zhang Ju (Left) and Fang Fang (Right).  Great puppeteers and patient teachers.

In 45 minutes, I could finally remember just what I was supposed to do, but I couldn’t make the sticks or my hands behave.  The unheated practice room had made my hands icy and sore and I was in a constant crouch to avoid hitting my head on the practice light positioned for Little People.

Wasn’t I being impatient and too hard on myself?  Yes.  But this is nothing new.  I took a break, talked to Zhang Ju about nothing in particular and then regained my focus.  I started with just the two sticks in my right hand.  I would use them until they felt right.  There must be a position that feels right – a reason they use this hand position in the first place right?  Well, I would find it – maybe not today, but I’d find it.

I took the two control rods and positioned them as I’d been told.  Feeling the crook of each inner knuckle and my ability to grip each one of them alone.  I did this for 30 minutes.  finally, when I felt I understood each one, I put them together.

After a few clumsy walks, the control rods seemed to drop into place by accident.  Somehow, in my hands the position made sense.  But just as soon as they dropped into place, they dropped out again.  I scrambled to put the sticks back to remember what my hands were doing.  It took another 10 minutes to find it again.  The rest of the day was spent trying to find the position, over and over again, so I’d never forget.

I’ve been practicing constantly with the practice rods Liu LaoShi gave me; on the subway, under the dinner table and at night while I watch Chinese Soaps.  I’m not good at it yet, but I’ve been able to at least find the position more times than not.

It is impossible to impart in words just how difficult this singular hand position is.  To make puppets come alive with it is a completely different matter.

I’ll be trying to learn the rhythm and movement of the walk next week.

Thanks for reading~

Beijing Pai (style)

Today was, officially, my first lesson with the Beijing Shadow Troupe.  I arrived early with my friend, Kaya, and we passed the time before class with a cup of tea and a round of introductions.

At 2:58, I pressed record on my audio recorder, de-capped my pen and sat forward in my chair.  I know, I know.  But I’d been waiting for this all week.

For the next two hours, Lu Laoshi told me the history of Chinese shadow puppetry through the eyes of a Beijing shadow master.

The origin legend throughout China is similar; Emperor HanWuDi of the Han Dynasty became heartsick at the sudden loss of his favorite wife and was unable to find the inspiration to rule his people.  A wise advisor, pacing up and down the courtyard walkway with worry for his country, saw children playing in the midday sun with parasols.  The shadows they cast on the garden wall were so lively that he was immediately struck with an idea.  That night, with one small lantern, the advisor recreated the likeness of HanWuDi’s late wife on the garden wall with such mastery that the Emperor was revived and ruled for many prosperous years.

The beauty of oral history is that each teller’s story is slightly different depending on the line of storytellers before them.  Lu Lao Shi’s story starts with HanWuDi and his sick wife, but it’s a clever bodyguard who sees leaves on the courtyard tree creating a lifelike shadow in the midday sun.  The bodyguard uses a simple silhouette created by a torn leaf in the sun to create the reviving shadow for the Emperor.

From that leaf, the art of shadow puppetry was born.  Though it begins in the palace, it’s quickly adopted by the military as a form of nighttime entertainment.  As the military travels, so does its puppetry.  Soon China is brimming with troupes and eventually bordering countries.

During the Ming Dynasty, approximately 600 years ago, the capitol city was moved to Beijing and Beijing style was born.  No one quite knows how Beijing style began to differ from the old style (now typically known as Shaanxi style).   But to be clear, it is very different.  (I’ll be posting a full feature on their comparisons after my initial trip to Xian)

Lu Laoshi was most excited to tell me about Beijing’s eastern and western shadow puppet styles, at their height in the early 1900s.  Kind of like the puppet mafia.  They were separate, and competitive.  After the Japanese occupation, the troupes scattered and all but one were permanently disbanded.  The Lu Troupe, primarily because they were blood relatives, were the only ones to regroup in 1949.  This troupe’s descendants are teaching me today.

The troupe had to start from scratch.  This restart catalyzed a dramatic redesign both aesthetically and philosophically for what is known of as today’s Beijing style.  Beijing troupes, as a whole, are innovative by comparison.  They interpret a wide range of source material and have no set guidelines for puppet designs.  They’ve also adopted many of the stories, characters and costumes from the much younger Peking Opera.

I interject here to defend the old style.  Shaanxi style isn’t necessarily opposed to the idea of updating, but their method of performing doesn’t allow them the flexibility.  They’re still operating under the old system; the traditional troupes are Chang Tang Hui’d (invited to the home) to perform a slew of shows on request.  This means, in your portable trunk, you must be equipped with the cast of characters for approximately 150 shows.

So you see, the Shaanxi traditional troupes must keep their stories and puppets within a certain time period and a limited subject.  Most Shaanxi troupes have been performing a similar canon of shows for well over a thousand years.  Lu LaoShi concludes that it’s great to be preserving the old form, but also frustrating to limit the innovation of a troupe.

I’ve asked him a few times about his own history within the company, but he’s declined to indulge me by politely saying, “my history is nothing compared to this.”  Still, I would like him to talk at some point about his own involvement.  I want to know where he thinks the puppets will go next.

The two hours is up before I know it.

I snap off the recorder, cap my pen and lean back in my chair.  In just a short few hours I’ve had my Shaanxi based history redrawn, happily.  I see now that the historical perspectives will differ as much as the puppet styles themselves, but somehow, I believe this will give me a richer view in total.

Stay tuned for next weeks lesson – I put my chopstick skills to test with Beijing puppets!

Thanks for reading~

Big Culture, Little Puppeteers

I’ve been looking forward to this day all week.  Sometimes you get a feeling that you’re going find something special around a certain corner and its wonderful when that feeling is right.

In the afternoon, I made my way to the famous Summer Palace ground in the Northwest of Beijing’s center.  I bypassed the main entrance and instead of touring the famed Longevity Hill, I ducked into an unmarked gate that led to a cluster of non-descript buildings with no apparent use.  Behind those, lay a small theatre, museum and school for Beijing style shadow puppetry.

In the email, I was told to arrive at 2pm.  I walked through the lobby museum and quietly into the theatre.  A repeat of the performance I saw last week was in mid-show and I quietly sat down to take it in again.  And it was a delight, again.

Just as the show was wrapping up, the power blew.  We were bathed in darkness and I heard a voice from behind urging us to “not be frightened.”  The few audience members were ushered out and in the dark I explained to the emcee that I was here to meet the company   With a smile, he took me around back to a dim room filled with shuffling feet, moving puppets and Ai Ren (little people).  In the lack of power, they were still practicing in their rehearsal room; the practitioners themselves becoming shadows in what little sun leaked through the doorway.

I walked in through the darkness and they sensed a new presence in the room.  Liu Lao Shi (teacher) spun around and following a flurry of explanation – and laughter – introductions were made all around.   In a few moments, I was able to sit down and just watch.   Just watch.

Each student was rehearsing with a different puppet, in a different moment in a different play.  Each audibly punctuating their movements as the practiced.  With a step back it was chaos; a step closer it was dance.

There are 42 students at the ZhongHua shadow company in total.  From the 15 that were in attendance today, I can see that shadow puppetry isn’t going to find extinction soon.  Each of them are studying with earnest and humor and each can turn a simple shadow puppet into a thing of beauty.

My tired head and heart was revived to just sit.  And watch.  These first weeks in Beijing, and of the fellowship, have been exhilarating and exhausting.  I can feel my mental and physical fatigue catching up with me.  But I’m an inspiration junkie and a little can go a long way.

I spent the next 2 hours learning from my new friends.  2 hours on the horseman’s sword. To give this context – this piece has 2 sticks and is essentially a prop. It’s the simplest thing you can start with.  I was terrible, but I didn’t mind.  I was content to keep working on my two sticks and soak it all in until they dismissed at 5pm.

I’ll be returning to the Summer Palace throughout my time in Beijing – for study and inspiration.

Thanks for reading~

For a more recent post on the Longzaitian Troupe, click the following link: The Little People Get A Big Stage

The Chopstick Test

After meeting Lu Hai on the Western outskirts of Beijing, the next day I met with the Beijing Shadow Play Troupe in the heart of the city.   Subway transfer after subway transfer, to walking, to cabbing, and finally I find myself a half a mile south of the Forbidden City in front of the Tian Qiao Acrobatics Theatre, in which the troupe is homesteaded.

It sits shyly back from the main road behind a very new movie theatre.

The troupe occupies a small room off the right of the entrance of the theatre. Inside is a bright shadow puppet light that’s been moved from behind the rehearsal screen to illuminate the room.  There, around a large rectangular worktable, we sit and talk for hours. 

Li Hong and her husband, Lu Bao Gong, are the opposite of Lu Hai.  Boisterous, emphatic and animated.   They introduce themselves in the typical fashion; starting with what generation shadow puppeteers they are and what international venues they’ve performed in.  Lu Lao Shi (teacher) is a fifth generation Beijing shadow puppeteer and has performed in Japan, a few European countries, Los Angeles and “the place where the Marlboro Man lives” – which as far as I know is anywhere there are cows to be roped.

The two of them are an interesting pair.  In tandem, they question me for the majority of our meeting.  Why shadow puppetry? Why China?  How did I find out about them?  Do I like Buicks?  They speak little about their work or lack thereof and instead engage me in a very detailed conversation about what I’d like to learn.  This piques my interest.  Everyone else who has offered to take me on as a student seems to do so with a shrug.

As an initiation, I’m asked to demonstrate how I use chopsticks.  I pick up a pen and a few other objects and they declare me capable.  Lu Lao Shi says, “if you can use chopsticks, you can learn to puppeteer.”  Take note, people.

They are willing to let me learn the entire process: how to make a Beijing style cutting board, how to fashion my blades, design and cut puppets, paint hide, and perform.  They even suggest I learn a little singing while I’m at it.  We’ll see how far we get in the next couple of weeks.

As Li Hong walks me out to the bus stop, she asks me who else I’m studying with.  I mention a few people I’ve met and that I’m going to GuangDong to meet with Lu Hai and the troupe of Little People.

“Are you all friends?” I ask naively, “you know – shadow puppeteers?

With an enigmatic look she replies “not exactly.”  I can’t exactly make out her phrase that followed, but it was something like “we’re all in the same game”.  She’s honest.  I like that.

I’ll be studying with them in the coming weeks while I’m in Beijing and resume again in the summer months.  Of course, I’ll let you know if chopstick agility really does translate into puppeteering prowess.

Thanks for reading~

The End of the Line

Today was my first ‘day off’ since arriving in China.  By ‘day off’ I mean simply sitting down at a desk and organizing my thoughts and to-do lists and what have you.  Catching my breath was needed after a whirlwind transition from America, meeting Simon in Hong Kong, the Fulbright midyear conference and my entry onto the mainland.

The 4th person I called today as Lu Hai.  I was told Lu Hai is a master puppet maker and performer.  On the 3rd ring, he picked up.

(In Chinese) “ Hello?”

“Hello, is Lu Hai there?”

“This is.”

“Hello.  My name is Annie.  I’m an American puppeteer in China studying shadow puppetry.  If you have time in the next couple of weeks, I’d love to meet you and ask you a few questions.”

“How about today?”

Aha.  Not the day off I had planned.  But when the puppets call, I must answer.

Within the hour, I was on the subway headed to the western most part of Beijing.  Jumping off at the end of Line 1, I hopped into a taxi and called Lu Hai.  Lu Hai explained where his apartment was to the taxi driver and we proceeded to drive further west of Beijing and into the mountains.  Here there are mostly energy plants and small building clusters to house their employees.

After 10 or so miles, I am dropped off at what seems like the end of the world.  And I wait.  Nothing.  I wait some more.  Nothing.  I call Lu Hai and explain that I have arrived and am waiting by the lady selling GuoCha berries.   I can’t think of any other way to describe my whereabouts.

In 5 minutes, Lu Hai rounds the corner.  He has a warm, wrinkled face and a relaxed gait.  He picks me out from 200 ft away and beckons me toward him.  Such a firm handshake.

His family’s apartment is modest and cozy.  A two bedroom configuration of cement and tile.  His wife and two grown children are shelling garlic cloves for dinner and they welcome me with equal warmth.

The next hour is spent looking through Lu Hai’s puppets and talking about his work.  He is a sixth generation Beijing style puppeteer, passed down through sons for over a hundred years.  He designs, cuts, performs and teaches the art form.  With a secret smile, he informs me that I called at a good time, for he is heading to Guan Dong in 3 days to teach for four months.

Beijing Shadow style differs greatly from traditional Xian puppets.  They are larger, softer and less intricate.  It’s thought to be an innovation from the original form – first presented only around 500 years ago in the Northeastern area of China.

Lu Hai has taken it a step further.  He’s quite aware of the fact that Chinese shadow puppetry can’t be sustained as it had been for the last thousand years or so.  He’s pushing it forward with new stories, new characters and an infusion of animal characters that he assured me “make the kids happy”.  They must.

He has trained troupes in China and toured to a number of Western European countries in his younger days.  His upcoming trip to Guan Dong is to train a troupe of dwarves to perform.  This is a growing trend as their height and physical constraints make regular physical labor impossible.  Coincidentally, I was scheduled to see the Beijing troupe perform this week at the Summer Palace.

While he talks, he unwraps his bundled collection of performance puppets. I can’t tell you how it feels to see these beautiful creations presented by the artist in person.   Pigs, alligators, monkeys, dolphins, creatures, people, scenic pieces, the works – an absolute delight and they aren’t even being animated.

We talk for a while about everything; how he met his wife while they were training together under his father, why he has chosen to veer from the traditional and how his son would be 7th generation, if he wanted to perform.  He acknowledges that his son is the end of the line with no sadness or judgment that I can see.  Perhaps this is something he believes was inevitable or perhaps they’ve come to an understanding.

Just when I feel it’s time to wrap up and announce that I’ve over-stayed my welcome, they all dress and insist that I ride with them to his studio.  Ok, I say.  Another 15 miles into the winding mountains and beyond the visible edge of the city lies Lu Hai’s puppet studio.  On the second floor of a non-descript red building is a modest couple of rooms for design, cutting, painting, presentation and a small stage with seating.  They all show me around the place and their pride and enthusiasm is humbling.

After a half hour or so, we pack into the car and they drop me near the train station.  I’ve agreed to study with him in Guan Dong for a few weeks and return to their home in Beijing to take pictures of his puppets and learn to make shadow puppet hides in the fall.  I impulsively move in for a hug as I leave the car side and Lu Hai hugs me back after a moment.  He tells me he’s has a lot of students, but I am the first American.   I am beginning to understand a thing about puppeteers – we’ve got family wherever we go.

With the fading sun at my back, I descend into the subway and reflect quietly as rush hour fills the empty train at the beginning of the line.

Thanks for reading~

For a more recent story on Lu Hai, follow the link: Making the Old New

Thanks to Stephen Kaplin @ Chinese Theatre Works for leading me to Lu Hai.