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.
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.
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.