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.
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.
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,
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.