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?”
“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. www.chinesetheatreworks.org