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~