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
PAGE 2: Link and Preview
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