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.
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.
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~