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~


3 responses to “It’s Not Like Learning to Ride A Bike

  1. You can always post your videos to Youtube and then include the link.
    I can really feel your frustration and determination.
    Go Annie, Go Annie, Go Annie.
    Be kind to you.
    Thanks for the update.

  2. Thanks goes to you as well for taking the risk in sharing your difficult trials as well as your small victories. Of course, you’ll be a pro at this when you return, right? 🙂

  3. Annie! Great post. The process to teach brain/hands a new movement is fascinating, huh? Once you get those synapses trained, you will know it for life. Keep up the good work!

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