After a morning of shadow puppet rehearsal and practice at the Shaanxi Provincial Folk Art Theatre, artistic director Liang Jun announced he was taking me to DaTangXiShi. Instead of asking questions, I just nodded my head and said a quick goodbye to the puppeteers.
We jumped onto a series of buses and were dumped onto a large street next to a gigantic new building, made to look like old Xi’an. Oh no, I thought. Another tourist trap? Some people have described it as a kind of Tang Dynasty amusement park, with no rides. As we circled around the complex, we came into contact with everything from food stalls to an international museum expo to an outdoor stage featuring Tang Dynasty dancing and music.
I trailed Liang Jun as he walked briskly past everything and back into a quieter area. We spotted a sign for YuTian WenHua, YuTian Culture, and slipped inside the building. Two floors of workshops, galleries and shops featuring Tang Dynasty goodies. As Liang Jun and I browsed through one of the stores, we both heard a burst of drums and banging and turned on our heels to see what was playing. What we found was a decent sized restaurant with an equally decent sized stage featuring very traditional peasant music from Shaanxi province. It’s the very music, indeed the same songs, I had heard while studying in the countryside in 2008.
Alongside an animated crowd, we watched the musicians finish and the shadow puppeteers start. The first bundle of puppet shows were new; colorful, cute, well executed and accompanied by lovely music. Dancers with fans, on little tippy toes, cute little girls in pigtails doing leaps in tandem, and happy dragons passing a circus ball back and forth. All a joy to watch.
However, they saved the best for last.
During the short transition to the final presentation, they brought the screen forward, pulled the curtains in a bit and dimmed the lights. The shadow puppet light went from 20 fluorescent tubes to a single light source.
The music began suddenly with a series of explosive symbol clangs, whiny, twangy erhu and bahu notes and a high-pitched male voice. To anyone unfamiliar with the clamor, it can be grating. To others, it’s a refreshing kick in the shorts. This is old style, folks.
The curtain opened and it was something so familiar. I had seen this show a few times during my first apprenticeship in HuaXian county. I felt at home. The puppets are smaller and their design is infinitely more complex. One puppeteer puppets the entire show, supported by one singer and three musicians.
The show ended in just over ten minutes and the puppeteers came out to receive their applause. And would you believe it? I know these guys!
The YuTian company in HuaXian has joined with the Xi’an branch and the troupe has been transplanted to the city for daily performances. What a joyful reunion it was.
The rest of the evening continued to bring good surprises. As we toured the rest of the space, I was shown to the shadow puppetry wing – an area of he building dedicated to shadow puppet design, cutting, painting, stringing, history, etc. This is all open to the public, six days a week. Again, my leather cutting friends from HuaXian were there. In my excitement, I unconsciously went in for hugs, only to remember too late that Chinese people aren’t so thrilled about them.
To add to the unbelievability of it all, the night Liang Jun brought me happened to be some sort of shadow puppet kick off/reunion. Everyone from the region was there to celebrate. The ‘first knife’ cutting master (who I will be studying with!) the most famous singer (you may have seen him in ZhangYiMou’s To Live), and the owner of the place.
The “First Knife”. Shaanxi Province’s biggest shadow puppetry cutting Master. Pictured here in front of the largest piece in his display room at YuTian. The puppet stands about 12 feet high.
YuTian WenHua is just what I thought Xi’an needed. An accessible place to see and learn about shadow puppetry. The artists are the real deal and there is just enough cheese to please the less apt theatre goer.
This ain’t machine made folks. This is the real deal.
Sadly, this also signifies another stage in the transition of an old folk art. Its move from the countryside to Xi’an confirms its current status as more of a museum piece than a living, breathing art form. Right now, it also means reaching far more people, but perhaps in a more temporary way. The shadow puppet shows no longer function as a central role in a community’s happenings, but as a once a year dinnertime entertainment.
I’m taking this in positive stride. I’m well aware that without funding or a few passionate, motivated and influential people, shadow puppetry could fade away into historic obscurity. Instead a new generation of Xi’an-ites will have seen it first hand, not just heard about it from their Grandparents.
So, needless to say, if you’re anywhere near Xi’an, go. Go, go, go.
Thanks for reading~
DaTangXiShi (Tang Dynasty City): On LaoDongLu (Road) between YouyYiLu (Road) and FengQingLu (Road) in the southwest corner of Xi’an outside the city wall but inside the 2nd ring road. Ask your hotel or hostel and they can get you there.
Yutian Website: www.yutianwenhua.com
(Chinese only, although I’ve offered to help put up the English version sometime soon)