For a solid week, I had the luxury of simply going to a work studio everyday. I split my time between the YuTian cutters studio and the Shaanxi Provincial Folk Art Theatre’s shadow puppet rehearsals and designer’s studios. The ‘making’ part is where I feel most comfortable, most at home. Learning with my hands and my materials.
This is the perfect opportunity to let you in on the cutting process; partially because it’s a beautiful craft developed over two thousand years and partially because I am relearning it myself.
To be clear, this is specifically the HuaZhou style of cutting. This style is found primarily in Xi’an and its eastern countryside and is very similar to the entire northern central region of China.
In this workshop, they are mostly working with older designs as their historic value makes them the most profitable. Below are a few old style puppets to give you a sense of what we’re aiming for:
To Cut A Traditional HuaZhou Style Shadow Puppet
- Your design
- Thumb Tacks
- Transclucent cowhide
- Heavy/Flat objects
- Cotton Cloth (moistened)
- A set of hand blades (8-12) with a rounded handle approximately 3” long
- A set of punches (6-10) of varying sizes
- Needles tool
- A wooden hammer stick
- A wooden cutting board
- Rulers, straight edges, and French curves
- A rough sharpening stone
- A finishing sharpening stone
- Bottle of water for sharpening knives
The makers begin with their chosen design printed at full scale.
With drawing in hand, they cut smaller pieces from a large translucent cowhide – about 1” wider than the defined outer edge of the design. Dry, this cowhide has the feel of an unruly sheet of thick plastic; incredibly stiff, curled and inflexible.
With a needle tipped tool, they scratch the design into the cowhide as it’s tacked flat over their printed design. The detail of the trace depends on the experience of the cutter. I have to draw absolutely every little line and cut out or I’ll lose my sense of the pattern, while my friend WangYan can lay down about 1/3 of the lines.
Next, the dry cowhide is placed between two heavy tiles (or whatever you have that is extremely heavy and flat) that are lined with moistened cotton cloth. However dry your cowhide is and wet the cloth is will determine how long the cowhide is left sitting. Moisture softens the cowhide enough to be able to push your blade through it, but too much moisture renders it unusable for several hours. You can’t leave your cowhide between tiles during lunch, or you won’t be able to cut until late afternoon (remember when I said I learn better from mistakes?).
To aid in obtaining the perfect balance of moist and dry, the cutters place a folded piece of cotton cloth and folded plastic sheeting under their boards. The former keeps pieces flat while they dry quickly and the latter helps the pieces dry slowly and more uniformly. Experienced cutters are usually juggling a myriad of pieces in and out of tiles, under their boards and under their knife. I can barely handle two pieces without forgetting about one between tiles.
Once a piece is ready to cut (and I’m beginning to believe that this is the most nuanced part of the process) the fun can begin. The cutters have different theories on where to begin cutting on your design. Steadfast rules are leaving cut pieces in place and cutting the outer edge at the very end. Leaving the pieces in place keeps the leather from distorting as you push the cowhide into your blade and leaving the outer edge of your design gives you room to push with your non-cutting hand without cutting your fingers.
<The following explanation is for a right hander, flip this if you’re a lefty.>
With a small hand blade in your right hand, face the sharp edge towards your left. The blade is pushed down into the cowhide in order to catch on the wooden board below and hold steady. With your left hand, push and direct the cowhide towards the blade in your right hand. See a short video here.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘my mother told me to never cut towards my fingers’. I was thinking this too and I told them so when I first started cutting in 2008. They all laughed. I didn’t think the thought of losing my left hand digits was so funny, but… Of the leather cutting methods I’ve seen, this method absolutely gives you the best control. I was ready to sacrifice my fingers for art. Happy to announce I am typing now with all intact.
The designs are a mix of curved cuts, straight cuts and punches. The knife chosen depends entirely on the cut. Sharpely angled blades are for smaller curves and twists, larger angled blades for wider curves and straight tipped blades for straight lines.
The punches are also a variety of shapes and sizes; mostly half and ¾ circles. They are placed perpendicular to the leather and hit with the wooden hammer tool to literally ‘punch’ through the leather. Many punched designs are combinations of larger and smaller sizes to create the look of a small flower or seam, etc.
The knives must be hand sharpened about every 100 cuts. The punches must be sharpened too, but with absolute care, once broken, they cannot be fixed.
Once the pattern is finished, the cuts are punched out and the piece is sent to the painters. Depending on the size of the piece, one puppet can take anywhere from 1-4 days working about 8 hours per day.
However basic, every step of this process takes skill. The point of mastery is understanding how all of these variables interact with each other. The consistency of the cowhide, the sharpness of your blades, and the skill in executing a design, etc.
After a week of study at YuTian, I am just a bit past where I left off in 2008. This means that I can cut the leather, but my design execution is still relatively poor. I have the most trouble with small turns and very fragile patterns/pieces. I don’t quite trust the leather or myself just yet.
My first cutting sample of the year (a few elements left uncut); some pieces punches out and some not. I was reluctant to photograph it, but as my cutter friend said, ‘you’ll want to remember where you started’.
Through this work, and watching other artists in China work, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about work ethic vs. discipline. My work ethic is in tandem with theirs. None of us shy away from long hours at the worktable or behind the screen. But it’s become clear to me that my discipline is lacking. I am impatient and bored easily. When I finally have a piece of cowhide ready to cut, I rush through it, hoping to cut as much as possible before it gets dry again.
After the completion of my first piece this week, WangYan simply said ‘you must go slowly. One piece in one day, two days, ten days – as long as it takes.’
It’s funny, I have always wanted discipline. But, perhaps, I don’t have enough discipline to obtain it. Hmm. I have no idea how to go about cultivating this, but then again, its just one of the adventures I must embark on this year.
Thanks for reading~