Monthly Archives: July 2011

Making the Old New

After returning from Europe and conquering a particularly nasty bought of jetlag, I am ready to puppet hunt again.  This time, to reconnect with some artists from my first forays in Beijing a few months ago.  Lu Hai has been on my mind in particular.  He was the first shadow puppet artist I met on my Fulbright, and in many ways, he laid the precedence for generosity and openness.  We had arranged to meet in Guangzhou, where he was to train a troupe of dwarves for three months, but he headed home early and I’ve been waiting to meet up with him.

We texted a few times and then finally caught each other on the phone.  “I’m at the museum”, he said.  “Doing what?” “Cutting”, he said “cutting puppets.”   I was given a new address this time, the Mengtougou Museum near Pingguoyuan.  Mengtougou is a modest museum, supposedly the first county-level museum in Beijing to have a comprehensive collection of Chinese works.  It’s close to his house, an hour subway ride followed by a 25 minute bus ride west of the city.  As I round the corner from the Chengzi stop, I glimpse Lu Hai’s grinning face at the top of the museum stairs – he has just come out for a smoke break.

We say an awkward hello and then quietly stand together until he has smoked his cigarette down to the filter.  We walk slowly up the side stairs, past the sleeping ticket teller, through an empty display room, and into his small makeshift office – set up just behind one of the display walls.


We sit and catch up a bit.  His trip to Guangzhou to train a troupe of dwarves went well and they continue to perform down south.  Yes, his family is well.  Yes, I’ve had an amazing couple of months since we last talked.

What was he doing here, I asked?  Lu Hai has been hired by the museum to recreate their aging shadow puppet collection.  He has about three hundred puppets, from around the Ming dynasty, photocopied and in a tall stack stuffed in a drawer – he’s been there two weeks and he’s nearly finished eight puppets.

 At this rate, he’ll be cutting in this room for a little over a year.

There’s a mini white kitten that seems to live on Lu Hai’s floor of the museum.  As we talk, the kitten comes to visit Lu Hai and see what he’s doing with all this leather, but runs away at the slightest provocation.   We save him once from climbing onto the welded display structure.

I can tell right away that Lu Hai cuts differently than the Tangshan folks I’ve been studying with.  The knives are shaped differently and he staples two layers of cowhide around a paper print out of the design instead of pinning it to the wax board.

He tells me this is “Beijing Style”.  It looks an awful lot like Tangshan style when you get to the cutting technique, but he assures me its different.

We sit quietly for a bit.  I watch him cut and watch the kitten get into trouble.  I snap a few photos and watch again.  Lu Hai stops for his 4th smoke break in 30 minutes.

“Do you like cutting puppets?” I ask.  I don’t mean this to be a leading question, but as soon as it’s out of my mouth, I realize it might sound judgmental.  He look at me with clear eyes and a sense of relief and says “Yes.  I really like cutting puppets.”  I think he means it.  I sense it’s mostly because he’s got a year of steady work in a nice office with a mini white kitten.  It occurs to me, that despite our obvious differences, we artists are pretty similar around the globe; so happy to be able to do our work and even happier when there’s some stability in it.  I’m happy for him.  He deserves it.

I hang around for an hour or so and at 4:30 he announces that the work day is over.  He walks me to the bus station and I wait there and wave to him as he mounts his bicycle.  I’m not sure when I’ll be back to visit Lu Hai in this part of town, but I’m happy to know that he’ll be here for awhile.

Thanks for reading~

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To Cut A Puppet : Hebei Style

After my trip to Tangshan, to work with the Lu family cutters, I’ve had a chance to begin practicing these new cutting techniques on my own.  I’m in a beautiful Hutong sublet for the summer in Beijing, with the perfect work station set up on the porch.  The morning light beckons me to practice.  The Lu’s equipped me with a wax board, knives, design tools and cowhide and I’ve outfitted the rest myself.

In April, I showed you how to cut a puppet in the traditional Shaanxi style (also known as Huazhou style – most dominant around the northern central region of China).  Huazhou style is the oldest cutting method by a few hundred years, so I consider this the main form and others, adaptations thereof.   Hebei style in the northeastern region, is, estimated to have originated around 600 years ago.

The Hebei cutting technique is, by far, an easier entre into Chinese puppet cutting methods.  It uses fewer tools, fewer steps and a safer, simpler cutting position.  The quality of the cut and the ability for intricacy is lessened slightly, but for the non-expert it’s similar enough.

Tools & Materials

From L to R: Finishing stone, rough stone, waxboard, nail clippers, set of three blades, needle tool, small pins, leather template for flower motif

  • Your design on paper
  • Small sewing pins @ 1/2” Long (cut the tips off with a wire cutter)
  • Waxboard (wood frame, beeswax and ash or powdered incense)
  • Cowhide (up to four layers at a time depending on thickness)
  • A set of at hand blades (3-7) with a handle as long at the distance from your second index finger knuckle to the base of your thumb joint
  • A needle tool for tracing designs
  • A nail clipper to remove small pins
  • A rough sharpening stone
  • A finishing sharpening stone
  • Water for sharpening knives

The cutters begin similarly to Huazhou style.  The design is printed on paper and traced, or scratched, with the needle tool upon the translucent cowhide.  Depending on the thickness of the cowhide, Hebei cutters can cut up to 4 layers at a time.

After tracing the design with the needle tool, the cowhide is placed on the wax board and anchored with small-headed pins.

Small sewing pins, cut to 1/2″ length, hold down this design into the beeswax board.

Then, there are two very truncated steps in Hebei style:

1) The cowhide can be cut without moistening it first (this alone makes me jump for joy and saves me many grey hairs).  Even the very thick hide is cut dry.

2) The knife sharpening process is much less nuanced and precise.  Blades vary simply in width.  The angle of the blade itself can be the same (around 45 degrees) and does not need to be a perfectly flush from side to side.

<The following explained for a right handed artist, flip this if you’re a lefty.>

With the design pinned down and your blades sharp, you’re ready to cut (Yes!  It’s that easy!).  Your right hand holds the blade much as in Huazhou style.

It is held, blade out, and placed into the leather at your desired entry point.  With your left hand placed on the board and your left index finger securing the hide just beside your cut, move your blade down into and then through the beeswax along the cut.

See a short video clip of Tianxiang cutting here:

http://vimeo.com/26620121

The beeswax board prevents blade slippage and helps to control your speed and motions.  I’ve seen a few Hebei style cutters at work and they do a mix of a small sawing, or rocking motions, as they move along the cut and some incorporate a bit of straight pushing like Huazhou style.  It depends very much on the cutter, the knife and the cut itself.

In Hebei style, the board is turned like the work itself would be turned in Huazhou style.  With the design pinned down, in order to get the right angle for your cut, the board must be spun.  Hint: place a small tack at the bottom center of your wooden board for a pivot point!

Unlike the Huazhou style, you are able to punch our your cuts as you go (as you are cutting down not sideways into the design so there is little risk of leather distortion), which is wonderful for instant-gratification people like me.

Once the design is fully cut, pick out the pins with the nail clippers and get ready to paint!A Master Lu cut piece, ready for assembly and lacquer

This is essentially the process.  The knives are sharpened every 25 or so cuts, but a double swipe back and forth is usually enough to get it sharp enough.

I’ve been practicing the method myself on a few practical projects and I find that while I miss the intricacy and control I have with Shaanxi/Huazhou style, the Hebei style is infinitely more approachable and great for a busy lifestyle.  Without the cowhide moistening process, you can pick up where you left off in the morning with no wait time.

I have also been cutting with handmade hide, purchased from the Lu family, for the first time and there is definitely a marked difference.  The lack of chemicals, the texture and consistency make cutting an absolute pleasure.  I may have to fork over the dough for my next couple of hides since I’m spoiled now.

A pair of Beijing Opera shoes.  Parts of a puppet I cut recently for the Zhonghua Shadow troupe at the Summer Palace.  A simple, but effective design.

Withing just a few short weeks of consistent self study, my style is already morphing.   I can feel myself pushing (Huazhou style) about 80% of the time and ‘sawing’ (Hebei style) about 20% of the time.  It’s faster to push and creates a smooth cut every time.  It’ll be interesting to see how Hebei style has affected my Huazhou technique, if at all, when I return to Xi’an in mid-August.

I’ve started a few puppet design projects for exhibition back home.  That prism effect that I have been feeling in the last month has inspired me to branch out and apply my current knowledge mid-year in order to understand better what I have yet to learn.

The beginning of a new shadow friend…not sure what his name is yet.

Designing in shadow is deceptively difficult to understand on paper and mixing that with my own aesthetic is proving arduous.  Still, a most fulfilling exercise.

Thanks, as always, for reading~

Perspectives and Prisms

I’ve just returned ‘home’ from my mid-year ‘vacation’ to Europe.   Pardon all the quotation marks, but something about them is helping me compartmentalize my otherwise un-compartmentalizable thoughts.

Before heading to England 12 days ago for the CHIME Performance Asia conference and then to Paris for a bit of dairy-topia + red wine rejuvenation, I thought that a break from China would be a clarifying thing.  Something about the distance, the return to ‘the West’, the cool weather, the conference, the visible sky, the lack of hot spices – all of it would be like looking at my life through a satellite.  All of it in one frame and color-coordinated in areas of varying size that corresponded to their importance.

Instead, I find myself back ‘home’ in China with no framework or tidy packaging but a messy finger painting of all things; ideas, emotions, inspirations, missings, ambitions, compartmentalizings.

At the conference, someone summed up the tidying up of all these things as a prism; which focuses many beams of light into a single one, clearer and brighter than its contributors.  I have always thought of it in the reverse, one source into an impossible web of fractured beams.

The time away has done this.  An impossible web, which I currently see no way out of – nor do I necessarily want to.  Chinese shadow puppetry has consumed me in a (let’s hope, healthy) way. I’ve had an amazing 5 months and have another 5 to go.  But up until now, even though the project itself has been big, my intentions have been decidedly set, or square.  Meeting all the researcher/practitioners at the lovely UK conference, seeing old friends and making new ones, visiting incredible museums and being in a mid-world between my old home and new – was part of what started to jumble my mind.  Doesn’t that always happen with new stimuli?  Refraction.  But it was more than that.  Forward thinking, thinking outwards.  Where does one go after a year of this?  Where do I take it, where does it take me?

For a week, I wandered around Europe, sat in cafes, looked at beautiful things, sat in the airport, flew on the airplane, and hiked home in the sweltering Beijing heat inside this bright web of light.

I’m learning to love the prism.  Or, I’m preparing to learn to love the prism.

Perhaps this is what happens as we get older and wiser.  As children, we are lovers of all things and then, gradually, life and school and adulthood force us to focus those beams into a digestible, compartmentalized edible sound bite.  And perhaps we are happy for it to be smaller and edible.  But as we focus, more and tighter, it begins to fracture again.  Within that small compartment we’ve chosen there are millions of possibilities.

And, it’s just the ‘beginning’, again.

~Thanks for reading