Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Accidental Artist

Last week at the cutting studio in Xi’an, a visitor walked through and asked no one in particular if they learned to cut puppets at the University.  My friend, Wangyan, laughed and said “no, we’re farmers.”  The question made me laugh a little too before I remembered that the story of a puppet cutter isn’t a well known one. I’d love to share Wangyan’s story with you, not just because she’s been a good friend for a long while (and she was open to me sharing it) but because I believe knowing the people behind the art enhances its beauty.

I’ve known Wangyan for four years.  I met her for the first time during my first apprenticeship in the countryside outside of Hua Xian, Shaanxi.  She was the unfortunate person appointed to be my teacher and we spent the next month and a half stumbling through every possible interaction.  While I still didn’t know much by the end of that apprenticeship, I had seen enough to know that Wangyan was one of the very best cutters in Shaanxi.

Now, after more than 6 months touring around China meeting and seeing the best old and new shadow puppetry, I’m quite certain that she is one of the best cutters in the country.  And she’s only 28.

Wangyan was born and raised in the countryside near the small township of Hua Xian.  Hua Xian is the small town east of Xi’an that has been long hailed as the birthplace of China’s shadow puppetry.  It sits just below a long mountain range on top of the north’s characteristically clay like soil.  For generations, her family has worked this soil and they still do.  Wangyan went to school with her brother and sister through middle school, but her family couldn’t afford to send them on to high school.  Not enthusiastic about her future as a farmer, she searched for another option – her parents suggested cutting shadow puppets.  Ten years ago it was very common for Hua Xian farmers to cut puppets from their home to sell to larger cultural commodity companies in the city proper, who in turn sell it to the public.

She started at the age of 17, with no prior artistic training.  Taught by master Wang Tian Wen’s younger brother, she studied for 10 hours each day and by the end of three months she was ready to start cutting basic puppets.  After a few years, she left working from home to join the Yutian company in Hua Xian county and just arrived at the newer Xi’an branch this April.

Her move to Xi’an made her one of the 300 million plus Chinese that have left their home in the countryside for more gainful employment in the city in the last decade or so; the world’s largest human migration in history.  Wangyan makes a good salary for a Xi’an standard of living and an amazing one for Hua Xian standards.  Her parents are incredibly proud.  Wangyan feels a bit more mixed.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit her while she was on vacation back in Hua Xian for a few days.  Her home is breathtaking.  Juxtaposed against the Xi’an bustle, it’s a veritable paradise.  Their cozy one level home is nestled at the very base of a mountain so high it fades into mist.   Her grandmother, parents, sister, brother, various kids and spouses populate the place; all warm and smiling.  Her boyfriend works at the rock quarry just a few minutes walk up the mountain path.  It was easy to see that her life is here.

In Xi’an, she shares a compact single-room apartment with another Yutian employee.  The shared bathroom and sink is down the hall.  Their room costs a small fraction of their monthly wage.  She can afford to live in a classy high rise, but she doesn’t.  Like many of the other workers that have come from the countryside, their home is still there, not here.  Every chance she gets, she hops the bus home.

I often ask her about the job.  Her usual answer is a shrug followed by an, ‘it’s ok’.  At first this frustrated me; it was like hearing Beethoven say ‘yeah, piano is ok. I guess I’m kinda good at it.’  How can you be so indifferent about something you do so well?  And she really does do it so well.  From a distance, she and the other professionals cut the same.  But up close, her cutting precision mixed with delicate design balance is absolutely breathtaking and unparalleled.  It’s so perfect it looks organic, like it was meant to be.  But of course, like anything you do for eight hours a day, six days a week, you do get good at it but it does become a job.  Her incredible ability was a surprise to her and not something she wears with the pride I think she deserves.

Her skills makes her an incredible asset to the Yutian company.  Already, they’re having trouble with employee turn over as proper training for a professional puppet cutter can take up to two years, if the cutter is talented.  She certainly likes it enough to keep cutting in Xi’an for a while, but her future is tenuously tied to shadow puppetry’s commercial future.  In order to keep turning a larger profit, the Yutian company keeps pushing towards larger and larger audiences, urban centers.  They’ll be opening a branch in Beijing by 2012.

I don’t imagine she’d be game to move so far away from home.  But, of course, she’ll do what she has to when the time comes.    For now, she and I were happy to have our summer and fall back together, whiling away our daytime hours cutting, listening to music and debating what to eat for lunch/dinner.  She’s one of the things I’ll miss most when I leave Xi’an in just a few days.

Thanks for reading~

Faux vs. Real – The PDF

So here it is.

A downloadable, printable PDF on how to identify a handmade shadow puppet from the machine made ones.  Again, this is not to discourage the purchase of machine made puppets, but simply to be able to provide you with the knowledge on how to differentiate if you so choose.

(To download, just right click on your mouse on each of the two links below and select the “download linked file” option.  You can also click on the link and eventually it will take you to a PDF preview page you can download from. (If you’re on a Mac, just hold down the control button while you click on the image and it should give you the same download options.)

PAGE 1: Link and Preview

Faux Real Page 1

PAGE 2: Link and Preview

Faux Real Pg 2

There are many many indicators to indentify handmade from machine made – the pdf only covers the simplest one.  Feel free to look it over or even print it out to carry with you while you shop

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling around China and have been secretly (or not so secretly) canvassing the shadow puppet markets around Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Shanghai and Huan Xian.  I’ve seen a ton of machine made and hand made puppets.  There are multiple levels to both categories; super cheap, super simple machine made puppets to very artfully designed and painted ones.  Handmade puppets range from basic to master level and their prices reflect that.  The most important thing is that you find what you like and you know what you’re buying.


Once you think you’ve found what you’re looking for, the real trial begins!  The bargaining.

In order to make this lovely PDF for you, I was forced to purchase a machine made puppet.  Truly, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that they’re being sold – but as a student of Chinese shadow puppet making and friend to many a fine puppet artist, I found it necessary to loudly exclaim that I was “only buying one for research!”   The puppet is a standard male character about 12” tall.  The seller started at 30 yuan and I got him down to 20 (about $3.50) with little fuss.  The hand cut puppets should run you anywhere from 80-300yuan ($12-45.00) for a smaller size.  These are ballpark figures as intricate designs, larger pieces and better painting take much more time and skill.

And, of course, art has it’s own value.  If you love it, buy it and don’t worry if you overpaid or not.

Trusting the Seller

This one is simple.  Don’t.  It’s not a bad thing, but they’re out to make a buck and most likely aren’t advocates for their ‘artists’ (or machines).  Whenever I’ve come across a shop or seller, I always lead with “are these handmade?” and they always follow with a “yes”.  Insisting, even, when I repeatedly let them know I know they’re not.  Eventually, they give in with a laugh and expect no hard feelings.  In Xi’an and Shanghai I saw a few puppets that were partially handmade and partially machine cut.  Tricky, this.  Supposedly, this is so when I ask for ‘handmade’ the seller points to the part that is handmade and can truthfully say, “this is”.   They’ll also try and side swipe your “are these handmade” question with “yes! Real cowhide”.  So far, I haven’t seen any tourist shadow puppets made on anything other than cowhide – so no need to worry about that yet.

Places to Buy

There are multiple places to buy at each of these locations.  Any hotel or hostel should be able to give you specific directions from where you are in the city.

Muslim Quarter – mostly machine made and cheaper handmade puppets

Cheng Huang Miao – mostly machine made and cheaper handmade puppets

Nanmen (Xi’an City Wall South Gate) Shopping Area – a variety, more handmade choices


Liulichang Market – more handmade, higher end pieces

Pan Jiayuan Flea Market, Chaoyang District – more handmade, higher end pieces


Jin Li Street (a newly built replica of an old style street/market) – mostly cheaper handmade and machine made puppets


Shops around Yuyuan Gardens – mostly lower and higher quality machine made puppets

Enjoy the hunt!

~Thanks for reading

To Cut A Gansu Puppet

On my most recent trip to Gansu for the shadow puppet conference, I had the pleasure of sitting down with a few cutters to finally see for myself how they cut a shadow puppet.

Many shadow puppet artists from other provinces consider this technique the furthest from the original.  While Gansu’s shadow puppetry aesthetic is a direct descendant from Shaanxi province, they are the only method to pull the knife through the leather instead of pushing it.  While the pulling technique allows you to cut multiple layers at one time and use only one knife, the designs are somewhat compromised by the loss of control.  Again, it indicates that the newer cutting styles favor ease in cutting over maximum control.  Still, I was entirely impressed with their cutting capabilities using only one knife!

Tools & Materials

  • Your design
  • A thick piece of rubber or linoleum to be used as a cutting mat
  • Translucent leather, no thicker than .6mm
  • One hand blade, similar to the size of an exacto knife
  • A set of punches (6-10) of varying sizes
  • Needle tool
  • A small hammer
  • A wooden cutting board
  • A rough sharpening stone
  • A finishing sharpening stone
  • Bottle of water for sharpening knives

The makers begin by choosing their design and cutting 2-3 pieces of leather about 1” wider than the finished design.  Trace your design on one of the cut pieces as it’s tacked flat over their printed design.  The pieces of cowhide are then stapled together in order to cut 3 copies at a time.

Just like in Shaanxi (Huazhou) cutting styles, the punched areas in the design are done first, inner designs second and the outline last.  However, similar to Hebei style cutting, the cowhide is cut dry – eliminating the arduous process of perfectly moistening the leather before cutting.  They’ve also adapted all their designs to be cut with one angled blade, cutting down the upkeep of over 10 blades in a Shaanxi set.

And just like that, you’re ready to cut.

<These cutters are all right handed, flip this if you’re a lefty.>

See a short video of Gao cutting here.

With a small hand blade in your right hand, sharp sides faced down – place the tip of your knife into your initial cut.  After your blade has cut through to the mat, pull it along the line of your design.  Use the board to make sure you’ve cut through the leather completely and through to meet the other cuts.  Some cutters brace their right elbow on the cutting table as they cut towards themselves.

With flatter and longer cuts, you can simply pull the blade towards you.  With more curved and circular cuts, your left hand must help push the cowhide counterclockwise.

While the cutting methods seem rudimentary compared to Shaanxi style, the level of detail one can obtain is quite impressive.  They have nearly identical puppets to Shaanxi style and from a distance you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  Up close, however, the cuts have a rougher quality and the level of precision and complexity impossible to compare.

After she learned I was studying Shaanxi style cutting methods with Wang Tianwen, Gansu cutter Li Ya Ping sheepishly remarked that Gansu puppets weren’t cut as well as Shaanxi puppets.  From a technical standpoint that’s true, but each style really does carry it’s own incredible aesthetic and none too easy to compare.   Gansu has done a beautiful job creating some more modern representations of their farmer culture and their color choices exquisite.   In my diplomatic way, I said as much.

I’ll hopefully find time to get back to Gansu and sit with the cutters for a few more days.

Thanks for reading~

PS: many new links added to the Links page after the Huan Xian conference (most are in Chinese).


The 3rd National Shadow Puppetry and Folk Art Conference in Huan Xian, Gansu Province, China

I arrived at the Yutian Offices in Xi’an early on Monday morning to catch a ride with them to the 3rd Shadow Puppet and Folk Culture Conference in Gansu province.   I had just found out about the conference a few weeks back after triangulating a few of my contacts’ stories.  Three of them were going to be in Gansu province at the same time for a performance?  Finally, someone clarified that it was a conference – held only once every five years.  “Why didn’t you tell me it was a conference?  Don’t you think I’d want to come?”  All I got was a puzzled look in response.

Like any field work experience, one must come with expectations in order to prepare, but must also be willing to let them all go when things inevitably don’t happen the way you thought they would.  The first of those ‘inevitables’ was the 5 hour car ride, that was really 9 hours, and was less like a car ride and more like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland – which is fun for 5 minutes and not fun for the 8 hours and 55 minutes after that.

My utter joy upon arrival in the small town of Huan Xian was due in part to the unending Indiana Jones ride, but mostly because the town is my kind of place.  This small city of 300,000 people (trust me, in China scale, this is very small) is situated between rising yellow mountains on either side.

Shadow puppet bus stops!

The entirety of the city central is built around one central park and one avenue that runs down the center of the valley.  With a ten-minute walk either east or west, you hit mountain.  And like any small town, Huan Xian has a chip on its shoulder to prove that even though it’s a small town, it can throw a party like anyone else.  And they did.

The first day was spent setting up exhibitions on the 2nd floor of the conference building and an afternoon of performances strictly for Huan Xian government officials.

Exhibition floor set up.  

A local Huan Xian Troupe performs

The opening scene of Beijing Shadow Troupe’s show

The conference hadn’t even started and I was in heaven.  Performers, puppet makers, scholars, enthusiasts from all over China were here, in one place, and so was I.  Some of them I had met and worked with, but I met many for the first time.

By dinnertime, my digital cards were full and I was numb with overload.

After a banquet meal of great food and endless toasting with thimbles full of baijiu (liquor) we were ushered onto a group bus and taken to the town’s outdoor stadium-turned-stage.  The place was packed.  It looked like the whole town had shown up, for what I thought would be a quaint and respectful little show.  How big could the opening ceremonies to a shadow puppet conference be?

As we took our seats towards the back of the stadium, I started to sense the scale of this performance and the effort Huan Xian was taking to put it’s name on the national map.  Being such a small town, there isn’t much to bring people here.  Shadow puppetry is one of their best surviving cultural traditions and one of the few reasons they can ask people to fly over to their little valley.

The performance was like a mini-olympic opening ceremony scaled down to Huan Xian size.  We estimated about four thousand performers onstage.  ONSTAGE. For each new scene, hundreds of new dancers replenished the stage with full costuming and choreography more elaborate than the last.  The show covered Huan Xian’s ancient history, its cultural glory and a ended with the requisite communist party triumph. And with a burst of fireworks that rivaled any 4th of July, the conference began.

Shadow puppets on the big screen TV!

Curtain call

The next two days proceeded in a blur.  With performances happening simultaneously, I was running to and fro with recording devices in hand, in order not to miss anything.   Beijing, Hebei, Hubei, Shandong, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Yunnan were all represented.  The diversity of shows was astonishing; modern, traditional, live and recorded music, live actor integration, story content, etc.   I saw 5 or so hours of performances each day and spent the rest of my time meeting people and surveying the puppet displays set up by each company.

By the end of the third day, I had doubled the contact list I’ve built in the last six months in China and seen twice as many performances.   An incredible gift for the last third of my Fulbright grant.

Longzaitian Performs a sunlight show with live actor intergration

The unique one-man-shadow-show tradition from Shandong.  

Liu Laoshi and the Bai Ling Shadow Troupe from Beijing exchange techniques

Shaanxi cutting master Wang Tian Wen visits with Yunnan cutters

However, as the closing ceremonies got under way, a new feeling settled in.  Underneath that delirious buzz of excitement of having met so many new artists and the potential that that brought me, I was pulled down again by the quieter story I had also witnessed in these three days.

To finally see the companies and troupes side by side, I had started to feel an unspoken hierarchy.  The large cultural commodity companies that sell puppets for profit are on the top of the food chain.  They paraded in with confidence and little effort; riding in private cars between venues and opting out of shared activities.  I didn’t see them at performances or perusing the exhibitions.

The modern performance troupes seem to be stacked by order of city size and sadly, last, were the traditional performance troupes.

The segregation between the modern shadow puppetry and traditional troupes feels like cliques in high school.  As an independent researcher and practitioner, I feel caught in the middle.   And I don’t like it any better than I did in high school.

There are merits and much to learn from both but when forced to make a choice I will always opt for the traditional shows.  I’m in the minority here, but this is where I feel the true art is.  You know storytelling when you see it – it relies little on gimmick and spectacle and almost entirely on content and genuine expression.   It can move you without words and teach you without you knowing it.

The modern shows were beautiful but felt void of the essential need to tell the audience something, anything.

The power of storytelling and the beauty of tradition seems to have little cache these days.   After attending the big governmental meeting about ‘preservation’ on the last day of the conference and talking with my new friend Yi, who has been documenting traditional shadow puppetry in Gansu for sometime now, it’s clear that traditional performers are being severely undervalued from the higher ups.  All of the larger modern companies had representatives present papers at the meeting, but not one traditional artist was asked to speak.  The comparison between the treatment I got from associating with the Yutian Cultural Company and the local traditional troupes was embarrassing.  Their day rates barely covered their room and board and they weren’t allowed tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies, among other things.

The contradiction is painful.  Huanxian’s active traditional countryside troupes are what have kept Huanxian in the center of the growing nationalization of Chinese shadow puppetry.   While most of the other provinces have lost their living tradition entirely, this small town’s countryside is supporting three troupes and an audience to go along with it.  They are the reason there’s a conference here.  They are the reason I’m here in China.

And yet?  They aren’t directly responsible for bringing money in, the puppet making company is.  Their value is intangible.  And as the tradition continues to fade and audience demand dwindles, the intangibility mounts.

Still, the performers are doing as they’ve always done; lighting up the night sky in the middle of the countryside to share stories of their people, their past and hopefully, tangibly, help contribute to their future.

Thanks for reading~