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

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2 responses to “Big Culture, Little Puppeteers

  1. How wonderful.

  2. Thanks for sharing your little pleasures with us. On some level we are an active audience, eagerly reading your stories, imagining in our minds the shadows that would best animate your words.

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