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~