Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Slow Exchange

Cultural exchange has a way of sneaking up and surprising you.  At times, it feels so basic.  How to communicate with a foreign language, acclimating to the constancy of strange foods, and of course, the sit or squat toilet?  In the beginning, the basic exchange consumes.   Simple logistics and practicalities.  Overtime, it becomes natural to cross the street with the flow and not with the light.   But something else is happening too, has been happening.  Slowly, very very slowly, so as not to wake your consciousness, the real exchange starts to happen.

It’s been this way with me.  Sneaking up slowly, in miniscule increments until it rains down.

At the cutting studio last week, I finally – let me emphasize that better – finally figured it out.  It is hard to explain.  They’re also known as Aha! moments; an instant where your brain connects with your body, your body connects with your memory and all of them converge in the present moment.  The power of the three coming together all at once creates a  force of realization that expands beyond the thing at hand.

I was cutting, rushing a bit here and there, pondering the goings on of the last 10 weeks, the first fourth of my fellowship, why my arm was aching, what would I have for lunch, why can’t I ever get that cut right, etc and I heard myself say again slow down.  I say this a dozen or so times a day while I work.    I work fast by habit because of deadlines, time crunches, graduate school and America.  At home, it’s a point of pride – my ability to multitask, work quickly and pack the activities in.

But there was something about this day following three months of these days.  The morning had been slow and steady.  A few quick and genuine exchanges on the bus and with my favorite street vendor.  I flowed with the foot traffic instead of the light.  When I arrived at the studio, everyone was napping, chatting or working calmly. It all created a strange quietness.  So when I told myself to ‘go slow’ this time, I finally heard myself.

So I tried it.  I slowed down.  I glanced down at my hands and took a deep breath and moved   s   l   o   w   l   y.   To me, it looked like I was moving in slow motion.  And for me, I am.

It felt so odd at first.  So silly.  But my tired mind and body insisted on persisting. Within the space of a long minute, I was paying attention to different things.  Not how I was doing, but what I was doing.  The simple act of cutting.  The cowhide determines your pace, your blade must take time to negotiate with it and your hand, the willing accomplice.

I focused on my slow motion cowhide being pushed ever so slowly onto my upturned blade.  Cut after cut after cut.  After a time, my dry eyes blinked me back into consciousness.  I looked down at my work.

Aha!  This was the thing.  This is what it takes to cut a puppet.  My cuts had the quality I had been looking for, something I could find sometimes by accident but not with any consistency.  I laughed loud enough to make my friend Wang Yan look up at me.  I’d been rushing to find the key to cutting puppets and it had simply been to slow down.

I feel China is often telling me to do this.  In the small ways, the unseen ways. Rare and beautiful things like eye contact and a considered answer.  I have never felt rushed in an exchange here, ever.   It makes me feel safe and human.

I took my time, not entirely without reminders, for the rest of the day.  It really is the thing.

Thanks for reading ~

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Too Legit To Quit

As soon as I arrived in Chengdu, I asked The Professor if Sichuan still had any countryside performances left.  He thought for a moment and said “very few.”  He mentioned a few artists including one old man who gave performances in a mountain range so remote he himself hadn’t been there in about a decade.  The Professor had no idea if he was still there.

“You should go to the countryside near Bazhong”, he said, “It’s the most convenient.”  I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad convenient, but as this was my first trip to meet the Professor and see Sichuan, I thought it best not to press the point.

I was to travel with my trusty translator and companion, Cecilia.  The details given to us were so foggy, and Bazhong actually not-so-conveniently located, that up until a day or two beforehand we were having trouble getting logistics solved.  A day before our departure, the Professor announced that he would go with us.  He hadn’t seen the troupe perform in awhile and it would improve the quality of our experience.

“Improve the quality of our experience” is a modest statement.  The Professor isn’t just a shadow puppet expert.  He has researched everything from folklore to Chinese tea trade and identifying authentic Chinese antiques.  He is, as one of his many post-retirement jobs, head of the Intangible Cultural Heritage experts’ panel in Sichuan, which is much of the reason we were treated so well.

We were picked up at the south gate of Sichuan University at 9:30 in the morning by two very good-natured guides, Mr. Wang and Mr. Liu.   They would serve as our drivers, photographers, and restaurant hunters throughout the trip.  I was informed, after we reached the city outskirts, that in fact we would be gone three days (surprise) and, oh, it was an 8-hour drive (surprise).  No matter, the company was top notch.  Cecilia, the Professor and Mr. Wang and Mr. Liu and I chatted almost the entire way, swapping stories of this and that, with a short stop for a traditional Sichuan lunch of Mapo Tofu and Agar noodles.

Upon arrival, we were met at the HengFeng Hotel in Bazhong by a gaggle of preservation officials and city cultural ministers.  They treated us to a banquet similar to my arrival luncheon.  Here, I added sheep’s kidney and bullfrog (surprisingly tender, but still can’t shake the icky factor) to my life list of foods.

We awoke early the next morning and after a Chinese breakfast buffet of pickled goodies and strange soups, headed deeper into the mountains surrounding the city.  After about an hour of twists and turns, we pulled into a small dirt road surrounded by a few scattered buildings and mountains rising high on either side.  This was Zengkou town.  Hopping out, I heard that familiar twang and bang of shadow puppetry music.  We headed toward the clamor and just as we ducked into the courtyard, the performance began.

As I sat, trying to catch my breath and frantically set up my cameras, I took in my surroundings. The courtyard of the nursing home was bare, save the shadow puppet screen in the center and the 100 or so people that surrounded it. The screen itself was simpler than I’ve ever seen it; a simple crossing of jointed bamboo poles with twine at each intersection.   Most surprising was the realization that I was outside, in the daytime, watching shadow puppetry.  I have heard of sunlit shows, but have never seen one.  They do indeed lend a very different feeling to the experience.

Then it dawned on me briefly that this is the first countryside performance I’ve been able to catch since I arrived in the beginning of March.  So I stopped, took my hands off my cameras and recorders and just watched the first show because like most live performances, it must be experienced live.

It’s the kind of show that you can laugh at even if you don’t understand what they’re saying.  And you can’t understand most of it – for it’s sung and spoken in a thick Bazhong accent.  The Sichuan style of singing and performing is bolder, louder and bawdier.  The puppets move with simplicity, but finesse is found in their hands.  The extra joint in their fingers lends a great deal of expression.

I could only sit in front of the screen so long, and just as most of the regulars were doing, I opted to watch the second performance from the side and back.  This is something that being from a traditional western theatre background, I had trouble comprehending on my first visit.  Surely, the puppeteers didn’t want us seeing their ‘secrets’ or ‘stage magic’?  But of course, they do.  This is the show.  It is all the show.

Master Xiao Dequi (L) and his longtime apprentice (R)

The master walking the old man

The band (partial view) Including 4 drummers, er hu, and trumpets.

Being a sunlit show, I saw much more than I have before.  Each piece alone and then as a whole.  A bit of the mystique and magic is gone from not being the sole light in the expanse of a darkened countryside field, but it is made up for by the sort of outdoor summer festival quality it lent.  Most important was being able to watch the audience.  They were really watching and laughing together.

Even now, as I watch my clips from the performance, I am disappointed with my fancy camera’s inability to catch the atmosphere.   I remember it was buzzing.  I remember it sounded like community.   The colors were alive.

The Zengkou Town troupe’s puppet master is 7th generation, passed down directly from his father.  The two apprentices, aging just above 45, were the last two students of the puppet masters’ father.  The musicians and singers are mostly defects from Sichuan Opera troupes.   And while most countryside troupes around the country are extinct or heading there in a hurry, this troupe is enjoying a healthy performance schedule.

Two reasons have lent this troupe continued success.  One, puppet master Xiao Deqiu is also a business owner and enjoys relative financial independence.  Because shadow puppetry is a part time job in this day and age, many famers haven’t been able to balance the two – opting for the paying job rather than the hobby out of necessity.  Most importantly though, is Zengkou town’s geographical location.  Located in such a remote mountain range away from the big cities, they are protected from the influx of modern entertainment and other distractions.  The citizens here are still accustomed to seeing the troupe perform at temples and festivals throughout the year.

I was so happy to not only see this countryside troupe in action but that their presence is still called for by the community.

After the perfomance, we were graciously treated to a lunch in Zengkou town and then ushered by our hosting officials to the beautiful Bazhong city Buddhist cliff carvings, and a huge new communist museum and monument park. Lunch in Zengkou.  A family’s house/restaurant.  The singers and musicians eat and drink.

Bazhong Buddhist Grottos

Monuments of communist leaders and heros in the setting sun.

A banquet followed before bed and we awoke early the next morning for our long journey back.

I will be back to visit in October for a week or two to study puppet cutting and hide work with the master.  Sichuan style cutting solely uses punches and no knife cutting – should be a welcomed departure after my summer of Huazhou style.

Thanks for reading~

The Troupe, Officials, The Professor, our drivers and me.  Cecilia is taking the photo!  

The Largest Chinese Shadow Puppetry Collection in the World

The Chengdu Shadow Puppet Museum (a branch of the main Chengdu Museum) was recently named China’s Shadow Puppet Museum.   To be clear, only one museum in China can receive this honor.  Subsequently, they shut down their old museum and are building a bigger and better space near the center of the city.  However, during my visit they were still closed to the public.  Thanks to Professor Jiang and his former student ChenWenJing, who now works at the museum, I was allowed to see their temporary displays set up in a make-shift office space on the west side of town.


ChenWenJing met my translator Cecilia and I at the bottom of a non-descript tiled office building on a smolderingly hot spring day.  I made the mistake of biking there.

We trudged up a few flights of stairs, passed their temporary offices, and kept trudging upwards to a locked door with no sign.

We paused to wait for a security guard and a few other official looking people to come unlock the door and sign us in.  
After a quick scuffle of pens and keys, we were ushered into the adjoining hallway.

What lays beyond is an absolute gold mine of Chinese shadow puppetry.  They have everything.  All in one place.  Even with the temporary displays, the pieces stood for themselves – organized by region or grouped with similar items for comparison.

I floated through seven full rooms of light box after light box.  Many things I had seen in pictures before, but many were completely new to me.   Human puppets, monsters, creatures, scenic elements, borders – from every region where puppetry was active within the last 200 years.

Gorgeousness abounds.  I shall stop talking here and just let the puppets speak for themselves.

(Pardon the shorthand notes, I have not had a chance to transcribe my audio recording – hopefully you get the gist and the breadth of this small sampling of their small sampling of their full collection)

And if you are in Chengdu after Summer 2012 – stop by and see for yourself

Thanks for reading…and looking~

Photo Note: All photos and puppets photographed are from the China Shadow Puppet Museum of Chengdu   成都中国皮影博物馆

One of seven rooms

Chengdu Style Woman Warrior (Approx. Heigh is 2′ 4″)

Chengdu Style Middle Aged Characters (Full Approx. Heigh 2’4″)

Chengdu Style Old Man (Full Approx. Heigh 2’4″)

A typical presentation.  Shaanxi style heads on the left facing NE style heads on the right.   Great to see them side by side.

Gansu province style puppets.  (Full Approx. Heigh 14″)

A comparison of chairs:  4 selected photos.  The collection has a few commonly found shadow puppet scenic elements in comparison on their own large light box.  

Chair 2.  Twig/wood like.

Chair 3.  Made to look natural/stone like.

Chair 4.  With deer design.

Bridge of Swallows.

Tangshan style puppets (NE region), old man.  (Full Approx. Heigh 14-16″)

Tangshan style puppets (NE region).  (Full Approx. Heigh 14-16″)

Yunnan style puppet.  (Approx.  Heigh 18″ – 2′)

My favorite collection on display; placed in late Ming/early Qing Dynasty.  These puppets are around 400 years old.  Their patterned bodies are entirely unique.

Full body example of late Ming/early Qing.

Body pattern close up of late Ming/early Qing puppet.

Thanks for taking a look!~

The Professor

After spending the first two months of my fellowship entirely in the north of China, last weekend I hopped on a sleeper train and headed south to Sichuan province.   The 15-hour train ride was spent in quiet reflection, save for a few short conversations with two other Chinese girls heading to Chengdu for travel.  I finished my novel, ate a bag of pumpkin seeds, listened to some melancholy American folk music and tried to sleep through an orchestra of snores.

My collective trips to China have been scattered and sporadic, much like my spoken Chinese.  Within them, I’ve never traveled south of Xi’an except to take a train straight through southern China to Vietnam when I was 16.   I really had no idea what to expect, other than very spicy food.

I arrived at 9am on a Saturday morning and planned to, sensibly, take the weekend off to rest, get my bearings and catch up on notes and archiving from Xi’an.   That evening, I talked to Cecilia, a 4th year English student from Sichuan University, who would be helping me throughout my trip in Chengdu – as my Chinese ability doesn’t handle history very well and I’m completely unfamiliar with the Sichuan dialect.  My primary contact, Professor Jiang, would like to invite me to lunch tomorrow, around noon, and would that be ok?

Yes, yes it would.

A bit groggy, I found my way the to the Sichuan University campus the next morning, where Cecilia greeted me and lead me to retired professor Jiang’s house, where he still lives with his wife and granddaughter.  After our introductions, I was informed that we were going to taste one of Sichuan’s intangible cultural heritage soups for lunch with two Ministers of Culture, a few students and a woman who helps run the shadow puppetry arm of the Chengdu Museum.  Gulp.  Good thing I wore my clean shirt.

The ‘lunch’ was six hours long.  I ate chicken kidneys and black chicken’s feet and washed it down with some thimbles full of baijiu (Chinese spirits).  We chatted, ate and stood up and sat down through an endless round of toasting.  It was the perfect introduction to Chengdu.

From this lunch, I was able to gain access into both the Sichuan University Museum and the Chengdu Shadow Puppetry Museum (now the largest collection in the world), both of which are closed to the public for renovations.  Jiang Laoshi and the Ministers of Culture are also organizing a countryside trip for me to Bazhong to see a few of the remaining farmer troupes there.

Jiang Laoshi is definitely the man to meet in Chengdu.   He is one of the first and most respected scholars of shadow puppetry in the country.  He was instrumental in assembling the first shadow puppetry exhibit after the Cultural Revolution in 1984.

In our first meeting professor Jiang talks with the enthusiasm and energy of a man half his age.   His small apartment is jam packed with books and he’s quick to tell me about all of his ongoing projects since retirement; including daily reading, writing fiction and non-fiction, lecturing, consulting for the Tangible Cultural Heritage project and so on.  He wasn’t always a scholar.  As a younger man, he tried everything from a short stint in the Red Guards to a secretary and then finally his return to school when the universities were reopened in the late 70s.

Professor Jiang is a folklore scholar.  He developed a fascination for shadow puppetry early on when he was rummaging around the Sichuan University museum’s storage room and found 4 unopened trunks of old shadow puppets dating back to the early part of the century.  They hadn’t been opened since they were purchased in the early 1940s by foreign missionaries and were covered in dust.

A few pics from the Sichuan University Museum collection.  Closed until late Fall 2011.

Compared to Shaanxi Style, Sichuan profiles are incredibly rounded and have a pronounced upper lip.  

The men in Sichuan have removable hats and beards made with real horse hair on wires – very similar to the ones the live actors wear in Sichuan Opera.  What you can’t see clearly here is the scale: these puppets measure about 2 1/2 feet tall each.

Sichuan puppets all have anywhere from 3-5 extra elements – including a two pieced hand shown above.  I’m hoping to see these in action tomorrow.

Since then, professor Jiang has made shadow puppetry a large part of his work.  He has gifted me his first book, published in the early 1990s.  In it is a comprehensive geographical history of shadow puppetry in China.  Jiang spent years traversing the country finding troupes, documenting them and gathering their stories.  All in all, he’s published numerous books, lectured, consulted and encouraged a new generation of students to enter the subject.However, the map of troupes included in the front pages of the book published in 1991 is now a sad testament to the art form’s fast decline.  Now, less than 10% of those red dots still have active troupes.

As hard working as he is, Professor Jiang isn’t all business.  He’s also a bit of a romantic.  While he rattles off the various students and artists he’s worked with, he always tags on their romantic history in case I was wondering.  He, himself, wrote his wife over 200 letters and poems before they were married.  He throws his hands up when he talks about kids these days trying to romance one another via SMS text.  Ridiculous!

From our subsequent conversations, and my museum visits all last week, it is quite clear that Chengdu is different.  Yes, the food is spicier.  Where my work is concerned, I feel a bit out of place.  This is the ideal city for a shadow puppet historian; it is chock full of museums and scholars on the subject. I assumed there must be a host of shadow puppet troupes and makers to go along with this, but in fact it’s just the opposite.  The few old performers left are exclusively in the country and there are no master cutters left.  Not one.  They have imported cutters from Shaanxi province (where I’ve been studying) to cut Chengdu style puppets with HuaZhou cutting methods.  Because I am a practitioner first and a researcher second, I feel at a loss.  Taking pictures of these beautiful works only takes me so far.

This type of work is a hard concept to convey, both here and at home.  When I explain that I am a practitioner doing research with my hands, I often get a dismissive nod.  I’ve had contacts ask me to clarify over and over again what my purpose is here and it remains foggy at best.  But this I know; there is no better way to understand and document a process or live performance.  These aren’t things that can be competently documented with words, photos or videos. Nothing shy of learning it with your own hands will suffice.

Luckily, I’ve got the Professor.  He knows my aims and is helping me where he can.  He’s filling in my historical gaps and leading me to some of the far reaching shadow troupes.   It’s a great honor to have him show me around Sichuan Province.  Without him, there sure would be a lot less to see.

Tomorrow, Professor Jiang, Cecilia and I will make our way to the countryside near Bazhong to meet with their remaining farmer shadow troupes.

Thanks for reading,

Special thanks to Fan Pen Chen for connecting me to Jiang Laoshi.