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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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~