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:

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~


5 responses to “To Cut A Puppet : Hebei Style

  1. I love the triceratops puppet! So sweet and fancy!

  2. wow! so cool. i’m so glad don told me to read your blog. 😉
    i’d love to see a pic of your hutong sublet, too! –julie

  3. Annie – wow! I find myself really curious about how you will bring all this knowledge home. I have to think you will be one of the foremost experts in shadow puppetry in the US? (Sorry if I’ve asked all this before…). Does that mean you start your own troupe? Get an academic job at a University that wants to invest in this art with an expert at the helm? Write a book? Get a grant to go back to China for another year and make a definitive documentary? (Maybe you can do that already with the video you’ve shot?). The possibilities seems limitless and therefore (to me) a little scary. We can’t wait to watch and learn!

  4. that is a great dinosaur puppet dude. he could have his own lounge act.

  5. What a wonderful way you describe your journey. Thanks to Stevens Kaplins suggestion

    Best wishes for 2012


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