I had been anxious to return to the troupe I studied with for a short summer in 2008. Not for any particular reason, and for many. There are few better ways to test your character than to travel to a country much different from your own. There are also few better ways to see how you’ve changed than by returning to the same place after a few falls have passed.
I knew HuaXian would have changed, as change is the constant in China. I had no idea how much or how little and I had no idea how the first two months experience on the Fulbright, working with so many varied artist in shadow puppetry, would change my somewhat insular view from three years ago.
HuaXian lies directly east of Xi’an. It’s about an hour and a half ride with no traffic. The freeways and tollbooths are new, but the bus is as rickety as ever. Expectedly, everyone from the ticket seller, to ticket taker, to bus driver insisted I must be going to HuaShan – the popular tourist mountain not far from there, but no, I insisted back, I was actually headed to that remote little town of HuaXian in search of shadow puppets.
The city has indeed changed, grown. My grocery store and outdoor market were moved a few streets away to make room for some glitzy new clothing stores. The city park got a facelift and the urban sprawl has spilled a bit further. But beyond the little city center, life is much as it was. The farmers are carrying on with their annual routine like no time has passed.
The small city bus dropped me off on the non-descript road 20 minutes east of HuaXian proper. I took one breath and let the nostalgia sink in. Funny how some things can remain so vivid in our minds, however old.
I looked around for my ‘hotel’ to find that it has gotten a new facelift as well. The landlady greeted me with her hearty laugh and swiftly placed me in the same room I spent the summer in last time. We chatted briefly, but I was anxious to see everyone else. I went to the one restaurant on the street, then the one small snack shop and lastly, the school.
The school was deserted. The silhouette is the same, but the details have rearranged.
As I peered in the windows, I could see that it was no longer a school. What used to be a small cultural company attached to a larger technical school was now just a large cultural company. The original YuTian company has expanded their museum and facilities to overtake the main buildings and the students have been moved elsewhere.
I sat on a rock and listened to the nothing.
The following day the troupe arrived back to school. They were unexpectedly put to the task of renovating a room for the expanding “black pottery” studios. My master, Wei Laoshi, was responsible for running electricity to the outer building. Instead of watching the musicians, singer and puppet master sledge hammer brick and rewire, I wandered through the old campus.
Hidden behind those new buildings, remnants of its old life.
The place feels so lonely now.
This is what memories do.
I spent the rest of the two days there mostly perusing their newly expanded museum. Xiao Liu, YuTian’s most capable tour guide, graciously took me around the rooms a few times as there were no other visitors to command her attention. The collection is modest, but a lovely assortment to show off Shaanxi’s diversity.
Without a doubt, WangTianWen’s (‘The First Knife’) pieces were the finest examples of cutting mastery.
I didn’t see them rehearse once and they had no performances.
Just as my three-day trip was coming to a close, the puppeteers had finished their demolition work.
I can’t quite get a read on how the troupe feels about the new situation. I also don’t know what kind of audiences they have and in what capacity. I will ease into these questions when I feel we are ready.
My entire trip to HuaXian was for the purpose of reacquainting myself with the troupe, assessing what kind of study would fit into my schedule this year and to wrestle with a bit of the past. Due to YuTian’s new branch in Xi’an and the export of the expert cutters to the city, my return trips to HuaXian will be focused on documenting their remaining countryside performances as they dwindle exponentially each year.
I was just as reluctant to leave as I was to arrive, but for different reasons. I have changed, they have changed, we have changed apart. I realize that I am doing what the puppets are doing, trending towards the urban centers. I feel torn, but am sure that this will ultimately be the best use of my time here. And if change is constant, then perhaps this is just another ebb and flow in the long history of ebbs and flows that shadow puppetry has weathered. I hope so.