They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore

I’ve arrived in Xian after a whirlwind first month in Beijing.  Riding the 14-hour overnight train on a hard seat forced me to pull my first all-nighter since college.  And I wasn’t any good at it then.  It took me two full days to get the molasses out of my system.

Yesterday, I was feeling like myself again and ready to dive into Xi’an.  By noon, I was stymied with a bunch of wrong numbers, internet black holes and general dead ends.  Today, with the help of fellow Xi’an Fulbrighter Nicole W. and stateside scholar Fan Pen Chen, I was ready and equipped with new leads.

I started my day at Xi’an’s famed Muslin Quarter to check out the tourist mecca in the center of town.  Whenever I tell a Xi’an resident that I’m studying shadow puppetry, they refer me to the old Tea House here with hourly performances.  I was skeptical as to its authenticity, but wanted to check it out for myself.

I arrived at the bustling street and immediately ran into a string of shops selling ‘shaanxi traditional’ shadow puppets.

In 2008, I had checked out these shops and found handmade shadow puppets made out of very thin cowhide, nothing you could perform with.  That’s ok – I understood these were for people to frame and put up on the wall.

Today, I looked closely at my first puppet and my heart stopped.  It was machine made.

Pardon my inability to hide my heartache here.

On my last day in Beijing, I met a puppet-making master from TangShan to hear his story and set up a meeting in June and August.  Just before we parted, he asked me if I knew how to ‘recognize the difference in a machine made puppet’.  I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to.

Now I know.

Perhaps to the passer by, there is no difference. But to anyone who prizes a well-made thing, a craft, it is a glaring inequality.

Left: hand cut sample.  The cuts on the edge come to a final point – the meeting of two thin blade cuts.  Right: the laser cut sample.  Not only is the design lacking feeling, the cut widths are uniform and the cut ends are round – the exact size of the laser.

I’m not sure how wide spread this is.  Xi’an is, arguably, the largest reseller of Chinese shadow puppets and the Muslim Quarter is one of the most frequented tourist spots in Xi’an.  Out of the five shadow puppet stores on the street, about 80% of them were machine made.  When I asked the storeowner why, oh why would she want to sell machine made puppets, she simply answered ‘they’re cheaper.’

For about 35 Yuan (about $6) you can buy a laser cut puppet.  The handmade puppets are over 3 times as much.

I couldn’t answer her.  There is nothing to argue and nothing to say.  Isn’t this the way of the world?

I know things must change and I know in the grand scheme of things this is, perhaps, such a small thing.  But I am close to it here.  To the most creative, talented and generous artists struggling to keep this thing going.  I can’t help but worry with them about how many more blows they can take.

I didn’t have the heart to follow all of this up with a tourist performance at the old Tea House.  Instead I headed straight to find the Shaanxi Provincial Folk Art Theatre and what I found there lifted my spirits directly.  I’ll be writing about them shortly and posting here.

Thanks for reading~

For more related articles on machine-made puppetry, click here: Fake It Till You Make It


6 responses to “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore

  1. I felt your heartbreak. Can’t wait for next post.

  2. Oh Annie, how sad! Glad to hear you had a good experience to follow. *hug*

  3. This desire to get rid of old, hand-crafted things is everywhere in China and it breaks my heart too!

    I am also totally amazed that you went hardseat from Beijing-Xi’an


  4. I had wondered about that when I was in Xian last month — it seemed like there were so many more puppets for sale than when we had been there in the mid-90s, and they didn’t look right somehow. I’m glad I didn’t buy any.

    It would be great if you could elaborate more on how to recognize authentic old puppets versus fakes — maybe an ebook is in order? Maybe many people will still buy the cheap versions, but at least they wouldn’t have an excuse for not knowing they are machine cut. And maybe it would help keep a few more people who do it old style in business.


  5. Tian xiang_Lu

    Hi ,I am so glad that you learn more in Shanxi, Huaxian, and knwo what is the machine made . Please let more people know it . Thanks .Hope you have more get

  6. Janet! I think that’s a great idea. I might put a little page or two together and find a way to spread the word. I don’t want to discourage shadow puppet buying, but mainly want people to be able to distinguish if they so desire. The real ones are works of art.

    Thanks for reading everyone!

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