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.
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~