Monthly Archives: June 2011

A Family Affair : Part Two


The week proceeded much the same way as the first day; long 12 hour days of learning, sprinkled with great meals, too much sun and some great guidance on how to kill flies.

Within just a few days, I had learned every step in the traditional Northeastern  puppet making process: cowhide preparation, cowhide scraping, making wax cutting boards, making hand knives, Tangshan cutting technique, painting, lacquering, and framing techniques.  Incredibly, this family does everything themselves within their small house except raise the cows.

Cutting on a wax board with bamboo handled blades

Tianxiang’s cutting table: board, sponges, water, sharpening stones, and knives.

Lacquering puppet pieces (behind) and drying corn in the courtyard (forefront)

Small rods create a temporary drying rack for puppet pieces that have just been lacquered

Just lacquered.  In Tangshan they use pure watercolor and a sealant to prevent fading and running.

Their involvement in shadow puppetry started when Master Lu was a young boy.  Back then it was common practice to use shadow play as a learning tool in the countryside classrooms.  As elementary school students, many of them learned to cut simple puppets from paper and act out popular plays.  From that experience, Master Lu was hooked.  As he grew older he aspired to make this a career and began the search for a Master.

Historically, Masters only pass skills down through the bloodline and up until recently, only from father to son.  Master Lu had to search for years to find a childless Master who was willing to share his secrets to someone of a different surname.

Once found, the young Master Lu studied with Master Wang long enough to begin work on his own.

When he married Yishu in 1979, she was folded into the process, learning to paint puppets after Master Lu cut them.  The two of them have used shadow puppetry as supplementary income to farming since their marriage.  In the winter, when other farmers are processing spices or cotton, the two of them are cutting and painting puppets in their workroom.  Shadow puppetry even helped them through a hard few years when Master Lu was battling health issues that kept him from the field.

But while shadow puppetry has seen them through some hard times, it’s also been a great source of hardship and loss.  They have personally felt the repercussions of shadow puppetry’s inconsistent popularity and slow fade in the last half century and even now, their future seems tenuous.  As machine made shadow puppets start to flood the market, the market for hand made shadow puppets is smaller and smaller.  And as China continues to develop at alarming rates, so does the demise of their folk arts.

Knowing that shadow puppetry is perhaps a risky future, they stressed education for their two children.   As their son, Tianxiang, approached high school graduation, he expressed his desire to continue onto college but there was no money.  His father suggested he learn to cut shadow puppets to earn tuition money and he did just that.  Cutting for a few years and leaving shortly thereafter for a 3 year program in computer tech.

After graduation, he began working in the city at a small computer tech firm and stopped cutting puppets until he saw an interview his father did for the local television station about his work.  It was here, for the first time, that he learned his father’s story.  When I asked him why his father hadn’t told him before he said his father had always answered probing questions with “Mei shenma he shou.”  There’s nothing to tell.  “Probably”, says Tianxiang, “because they were too hard to tell.”

After seeing his father’s interview and understanding fully what shadow puppetry had meant for his family, Tianxiang understood puppetry in a different way.  It wasn’t just a job his parents took up to make money, but rather the embodiment of personal dreams and his country’s identity.   He has taken it up with gusto; cutting puppets before and after his job in the city and spending his precious free time keeping his family active within the larger shadow puppet community.

On my second to last day, Tianxiang took me around the city of Tangshan in search of anything and everything puppet related.  Most locations had closed or moved and by the fifth stop we were both tired and deflated.  We agreed to try one more destination before going back; the Tangshan Provincial Museum.

When we arrived, the parking lot was empty and a lone guard stood in front of the door.  I prepared for the worst.  After a bit of discussion, we found out that the building was under-renovation and not open to the public.  We could, of course, go in if we knew someone who knew someone in museum administration and could come right now to escort us in.  I was ready to give up, but Tianxiang in his characteristic perseverance got on his phone and started calling.  Within 30 minutes, we were being escorted in and all of us were like kids in a candy store.

I was impressed with the museum, but more impressed with the passion and energy Tianxiang gives puppetry and those who wish to learn it.

As we walked to the edge of the dirt road on my last night, I thanked him for the umpteenth time.   Indeed, my gratitude felt so impossible to express that I just kept repeating it.  “If it weren’t for you, Tianxiang, I never would have been able to find your family or learn from you all”.  “You are wrong”, he said “it’s really shadow puppetry that has brought us together.  How else would you and I have found each other from other sides of the world?  We have shadow puppetry to thank.”

He is right, of course.

Thank you, shadow puppetry.

L to R: Tianxiang, Xu Yishu, Master Lu, and myself.

~Thanks for reading


To read more recent stories on the Lu Family:

A for Effort

一生一世 // One’s entire life

A Family Affair : Part One

My trip to Tangshan was preceded by much anticipation.  I had been connected to Tianxiang, the son of a Hebei province cutting master, through Simon in Hong Kong.  I sent him an email in my first couple of weeks on the mainland and since then we’ve been talking regularly over the phone, email and even in person to plan the trip.  Tianxiang’s enthusiasm at my interest was both encouraging and disarming.  This trip could go very well or go very wrong.

The bus trip to Tangshan was adventure enough; complete with a bus station that’s actually two men under umbrellas in a back alley near the Beijing train station, to being dropped at another random Beijing parking lot to wait an hour for the ‘real’ bus to come.   If I hadn’t been traveling in China for a while now, I’d take this as a bad omen.  Instead, I took it as a reminder to just let it happen.

When I arrived in Tangshan, Tianxiang was waiting for me.  Within an hour we had ridden the city bus to ‘check in’ at a boarding room in the city and then onto a long bus ride back out of the city to his house.   We chatted as we had before, with broken Chinese and English and with the ease of old friends.

The bus dumped us in the middle of nowhere.  China nowhere.  We stood in the middle of a quarter mile stretch of mini shops diverse enough to fulfill the needs of single town.  As he led me towards his house, the shops became scattered and the street became noticeably quieter.  A left turn onto a dirt road and din faded completely.  In a few minutes we were out in it.  One level brick houses, small kitchen gardens in every possible planting surface, self made garbage dumps, mangy dogs, squatting clusters of friends taking a break, and that sound the breeze makes as it makes its way through nature.

As we stepped through the front door of the simple brick wall of their courtyard, I was greeted first by his mother and then by his father.

Once the warm handshakes and awkward laughter was exchanged, I had a chance to look around.  Tools for any kind of project, material odds and ends, small garden patches, a water pump, sharpening stones, etc lay waiting in every corner of the courtyard.  It was going to be a busy week.

My first night was spent simply getting my first look at Tangshan cutting style.  Tianxiang’s earnestness manifested itself into thorough teaching, meticulous planning and a full learning experience from beginning to end.

Day One

I returned to the countryside early the next morning.  Already, Papa Lu was busy at work, creating the frame for my new wax board out of old scraps of wood.  Left; waxboard, middle; scraping tool, right; mixing wax with ash for color and texture.

Mama Xu was busy painting the cut pieces of cowhide inside.

The day proceeded slowly and with purpose.  We would work, patiently, and then stop for a slice of watermelon in the intense summer heat or to talk with the neighbors who rotated in and out throughout the day.

By midday, we had finished the wax board, set up a soaked cowhide on frame, and sharpened the scraping tools.  After a hearty lunch we set ourselves back upon the hide.  Scraping, turning, wetting, scraping some more, wetting and scraping even more.  My novice hands were blistered by the second turn.

Soaking the hide

Stringing the hide (this one still had hair on it)

Scraping the hide

Learning to scrape, pre-blisters

By 6 pm, we broke for dinner preparation.  Always a spread of simple vegetables, small portions of meat and a large helping of rice, noodles or corn soup.

It was lovely to sit with a family for dinner.  Looking around at their similar faces and hearing their familiar patterns of communication, I realized that I hadn’t been in a real family setting for over 4 months.  My family is back in Minnesota, and while we stay connected through skype, google voice, postcards and email, there’s nothing quite like sitting down to a family meal.

I breathed a secret sigh of relief and another one of gratitude.  Doing field work, you’re never sure where you’re going to end up.  You prepare, research and hope and then you let it happen.  Some experiences are more fruitful then others, some not at all and then there are these.  Everything you needed to learn and much more.

Thanks for reading~

Click here for Part 2 of this story

The Little People get a Big Stage

After returning to Beijing a few days ago, I paid a return visit to the company of Little People at the Yuanming Yuan Park (also known as the Summer Palace).  I’ll be studying performance techniques with them daily after I return from Tangshan next week.  After publishing my initial blog about this troupe, I got requests for clarification.  I think my desire to be politically correct made my description ambiguous.

The company at Yuanmingyuan is comprised entirely of dwarves.  All of them are 17 years or older and most come up to my waist.  They come from all over the country, drawn by an opportunity for gainful employment and a chance to live in a community with like-sized people.  In pictures, they resemble children, but if you talk to them in person, they indeed carry with them the poise and experience that betray their outer appearance.  All of them, ALL of them, are highly accomplished puppeteers or studying to become thus.

I had a confusing time finding them this time around because they’ve moved their theatre about 500 yards to the east side of the south gate at the Summer Palace.  For newcomers, the theatre is much easier to find at the new location, but still housed in a shapeless hull of a cement block.

They’ve added a gift shop (I’m absolutely buying t-shirts before I leave) that leads upstairs to the new theatre.  The big museum that used to precede the theatre entrance is now just a few framed pictures and one small diorama in the center.

The theatre is so new, the hallway isn’t even finished.  

I am an absolute sucker for a good mini-diorama; this one depicts a traditional countryside performance.  

The theatre itself, however, is much better suited for shadow puppetry.  It’s 2 tables deep, but twice as wide – making each seat in the house a good one and the playing space twice as playable.

Liu Laoshi, their incredibly adept teacher, is always present to guide – perfecting their new moves and sequences whenever possible.  He is constantly training in new puppeteers for as the more experienced puppeteers rotate up for more advanced roles.

He ran me around to their workshop room just before their performance started.

These puppets are simplistic compared to the cutting style in Shaanxi, but you can see here that design and color is most important.  The northeastern area of China places its emphasis on performance and less on the aesthetic.  Trust me, once they’re moving – you aren’t focusing on the cuts.

Today, the boys were taking a rest after some hefty rehearsal on their new adaptation of the White Snake legend, so the ladies held down the fort.  Doing everything from running tech, emcee’ing, puppeteering and even clean up.  Testing microphones 5 minutes before showtime.

Exiting stage after the introduction.  

They’ve got a new show in the first slot – a cartoon-like story of Rabbit and Cat friends, but the rest is largely the same.  They, luckily, have kept their cheesy introduction and transitions between shows and have kept the middle interactive dance number where audience members go backstage to puppeteer to the latest pop number.  It’s all very good fun.

I’ll be back in a week to begin my study in performance and Beijing style cutting (which is arguably the same as Tangshan style).

Thanks for reading~

Faux Real

China is a strange oxymoron.  A living, breathing convergence of one of the oldest civilizations on earth and a current culture which seems eager to sell it for less.  As China moves faster and faster into the future, it becomes harder to look back.  Even though every culture has been struggling with these opposing forces for centuries, China recent push into modernization places it at a crucial extreme.

From small to large, the collision of real/fake is there at every level; oversized printed barrier coverings made to look like old hutong walls, knock-off Gucci bags, plastic Terracotta Warriors, badly Photoshop’d billboards of Madonna selling soymilk and Scarlett Johansson advertising new apartment buildings, a fake Chinese architecture facade over a new cement mega-store.

I was in Shanghai this last week, teaching a puppet workshop to the college students at Shanghai Theatre Academy, and I took some of my free time to do a requisite tour of Shanghai’s shadow puppet scene.  The puppet artists I’ve been talking to outside of the shining metropolis have assured me that no one is active there, but I’ve seen bits and pieces of ‘Shanghai style’ puppets in newer collections and tourist purchases.  I decided to check it out myself.

My one lead was a handmade puppet seller nearby the famed Yuyuan gardens.  I know they’re handmade because the brochure I have tells me so.  My friends and I jumped on and off subway Line 10, which dumps you about four long city blocks from the gardens itself.  However short, the path to this oasis is harrowing – packed with mile-high malls, aggressive hawking, knock off treasure piles and rivers of people.

Once inside the massive mall structure that encloses the gardens, you can still get lost.  Coming from the ‘small’ city of Xi’an (compared to other Chinese cities, its 8 million + residents is actually considered small), Shanghai was already overloading my senses and this tourist swirl was about to pull me under.

Through the din, I heard a distinct ring of someone giving a performance.  I followed my ear and landed upon this 3 minute for 5 yuan ‘performance oddity’.

A sung poem with pictures to illustrate, using front light and backlight to create some gimicky visual tricks.  On the bottom of the obligatory performance description placard, I saw the familiar inscription of Shanghai Yuyuan Culture Promoting and Publicizing Co. Ltd. at the bottom.  Luckily, the emcee was just getting off his shift.  As he removed his fake Eunuch ponytail-hat and old time spectacles, I asked him whether he could point me to the shadow puppetry folks bearing the same company title.   He graciously wove me in and out of the crowd to a small stall of ‘cultural relic vendors’.

The shadow puppet cutter wasn’t selling today, but luckily they had some puppets behind the counter that I could take a look at.  From 5 feet away I could tell they were machine made.

I took a deep breath and asked them whether they were handmade – which is the question I always lead with to gauge their honesty.  They said ‘of course, everything here was.’  I calmly told them that, in fact, it was machine made.  They shrugged their shoulders and simply said the woman who cuts them wasn’t here today.  I flipped the puppet packaging over and read the same thing that had lead me here in the first place.

To be thorough, the cowhide is machine made too.

Something about seeing the lies in print really peeved me.  Alongside some sassy mumbling, I snapped a few photos and handed it back.  What is there to say?  Who could I complain to that would care?  As I looked around, every other sellable commodity had been compromised long ago.  Fake lacquer, fake jade, fake pearls, fake Buddhas, fake rock, fake everything.  And – wasn’t it, weren’t they, objectively, still a thing of beauty?

Later, we found another puppet seller I was directed to.  His ‘performances’ were an 18” square screen with some machine made puppets moving absently behind it.  I looked at all his puppets on the wall before I asked the same question ‘are they handmade.’  The shop owner looked me right in the eye and said again ‘yes, everything.’  I calmly argued back and forth with him and he fought me on it until I told him I research shadow puppetry.  I have been canvassing three provinces and have looked at thousands of master cuts and thousands of fakes.  I took a puppet off the wall and showed him the laser cut line and its rounded end – it’s inability to deal well with hair and star patterns, etc.  He looked at me with a grimace.  I told him he shouldn’t be lying to customers.  He replied ‘do you want to buy a machine made one?  I’ll give you a good price.’

In one of my earlier blog posts about machine made puppets, I remember feeling saddened by the inevitability of faster and cheaper.  But I understood this.

Lying about it is altogether another thing.

It’s putting craftsman and customer at a severe disadvantage, devaluing the buying process and the thing itself.  This spirals into all sorts of other problems that we are seeing and have yet to foresee – but that’s not what anybody is concerned with now and with good reason.  Most of us are just trying to get through this day, this year, this life.  It becomes increasingly hard to concern ourselves with what we can’t tangibly lay our eyes on, problems yet to be conceived.   The temporary skate through seems better than an honest daily grind.

I believe it is ok to create fakes and copies as long as we (universally) distinguish and undertand that this is what it is.  When we start swapping fakes for reals and reals for fakes and no one is around who knows the difference and cares to tell you, we’ve just negated our entire handmade history and, in turn, our culture. Soon, those who know the difference and still care will be unable to fight the tide against them.  Then, when we want to look back, no one will be there to tell us how it really was.  Our fakes will be our reals.

My usual course when faced with something I find needs fixin’ is action.  I’m creating a small downloadable pdf and an extra page on this blog to more clearly describe the differences between handmade and machine made puppets. It’s not meant to discourage you from buying machine made puppets, simply to be able to tell the difference so you know what you’re buying and how much to pay for it.  I realize that this is a drop of water in an ocean – but even if just a few blog readers utilize it, it’ll help me sleep better at night.  I’ll post when ready – please pass it along to anyone who might find it useful.

Note: I will be heading to Tangshan shortly with no ability to blog.  I should be back online – with adventures in tow – by late June.

Thanks for reading~

The Leather Makers

I have been retreating into a routine.  It’s a luxurious thing after 10 weeks of running around and facing a new adventure every day.  I get on the same buses day in and out to take me to and from the cutting studio.  The cutters and I eat at the same place for lunch and dinner, and I have been listening to the same music mix on repeat for over a week now.

Amidst my 10 weeks of adventuring, I inevitably asked every one of my contacts where and how they make the translucent cowhide for shadow puppetry.  Inevitably, every one of them evaded the question or genuinely had no idea.  Last time I asked my master in Hua Xian, he said “I don’t know and I don’t need to know.”  It’s proved to be the most elusive part of the creative process and I’m not entirely sure why.

For the last two weeks, I’ve cooled my pursuit to immerse myself in the newfound routine and would you believe my routine landed me right next to the right guy.

Er Yang is the son of the ‘First Knife’ cutting master Wang Tianwen.  He’s a young, affable guy who cuts puppets for the Yutian Company half the time and sources cowhide with the other half.  I had seem him coming in and out of the studio often enough, but he’d always slipped out before I could question him.  For some reason, he too, decided to spend last week cutting with us.  After a few days of chatting, I mentioned I was interested in learning more about the hide making process.  At first he was puzzled, but obliged anyways.

When the day came to visit his Xi’an contact, I was abuzz with anticipation.  I’ve been wanting to know more about making cowhide for almost 4 years and as you all now know, I have yet to fully cultivate patience.

Er Yang, his girlfriend and I, hopped in a cab and rode for 30 minutes to the far Northeast reaches of Xi’an.  In our vernacular, it was the suburbs – but while this suburb was quieter, it seemed more packed with small living spaces and crowded back alley food markets than the city ‘s center.

We wound slowly around some back alleys and down a long row of apartments until we arrived at an unmarked door.  Er Yang knocked and in a moment we were greeted by our friendly hide seller. 

In the space of a short half hour, they gave me a brief run down of all the hides, types, colors and producing methods.  The apartment is only the Xi’an ‘pickup’ spot for hides, while the real work is done in ShiJiaZhuang, a city in Hebei province.  The hide makers work on an order-by-order basis with about 3 weeks advance notice.

The real fun was simply touching, smelling and seeing all the different hide types in one room.  I exclaimed “fascinating!” enough times to loose count.

Cowhide, Sheepskin and Donkey hide; yellow and white, handmade and machine made, thick or thin and big or small.   I didn’t know it, but the hides I bought in 2008 were all machine made out of thin, smaller sized cows.  Feeling the difference in the handmade hides was laughable.  They are entirely different – softer, stronger and chemical free.  The natural color that comes through a handmade hide is incredibly beautiful and lends an antique look to any finished puppet.

Every cutter and puppeteer has a personal preference as to what they like to cut or perform with.  Generally, thick handmade cowhide is ideal for long term performance puppets, but color is entirely preferential.  I’m temped to buy some donkey and sheep’s hides because of their incredible color and affordability.

The prices reflect the quality and the work.  Machine made cowhides has remained at the same price since 2008 and hand made cowhide is currently 5 times as much per square meter.  Handmade sheep and donkey skin are surprisingly only two times as much as machine-made cow hide, but this is largely because the raw hides are cheaper to come by and they are thin by nature.

A hide measurement board, stored in their kitchen.

The photos below of the handmade hides will hopefully give you a bit of an idea of their variety and quality.

They have invited me to their place in ShiJiaZhuang to see the process first hand.  I’ll be stopping by on my way back to Xi’an from Beijing in the fall.

Thanks for reading,

A Sampling of Handmade Hide Types:White handmade cowhide, large sized hide, @ 1/16″ thickness.

Yellow Handmade Cowhide, medium sized hide, @ 1/16″ thickness.

Sheep’s hide, natural color.  Medium/small sized hide, 1/32″ thickness. You can tell this is sheepskin from the different hair patterns on the skin.  If you look closely on the left towards the thumb, you can see a smaller hair/bump pattern.  Sheep’s hides are also naturally thinner.

Donkey hide, natural color.  Medium/small sized hide, 1/32″ thickness.  They said this hide also has special hair/skin patterns, but I couldn’t see it.  I find the color to the be most obvious characteristic – a smooth, warm, caramel color and naturally thin like the sheep’s hide.