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.
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.
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.
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.
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~