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).

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