Monthly Archives: October 2011

Expecting the Unexpected

You never know where the day will take you.  That’s true of any day, really.  No matter if you’re entrenched in a worn in routine or not.  But this year, more than any other in my life, it’s become a sort of mantra.  For someone who likes plans and expectations – it’s been a daily exercise in the unfamiliar.  Letting the day take me, letting the world take me.

Today’s end found me somewhere outside the city limits of Tengchong, Yunnan, carrying roasted ginko nuts in my pocket, sleeping in the bed of a 10 and a half year old girl, and wearing a yellow winter jacket three sizes too small to keep out the nighttime chill.  And while I’ve had a host of amazing days the led to amazing day’s ends, this one is most likely the one I’ll keep repeating well into my old age – even if I see my grandchildren rolling their eyes in anticipated boredom.

It started plainly enough.  I was awoken at my hostel by one of the puppeteer apprentices at 6:30 am.  She wanted to make sure I’d be ready by 7:30 am.  I was.

I hoped into a car packed with fellow puppeteers and makers from the family troupe and we set off.  In a short 20 minutes, we found ourselves between mountains and well outside the din of the city.  After a quick breakfast of local Erse soup boiled in a clay pot on the street, we whisked off again to see the local inactive volcanoes, a lunchtime market, a ginko tree forest, and much more.

Somewhere in the middle of the feasting, walking along fielded paths, waterfall gawking, and more – I was led into the old house of the shadow puppet master.  There, I got to spend a few hours looking through their trunks of old and new puppets and a lesson in how to cut a Tengchong puppet.  Amongst all the festivities, welcoming and touristing – this is always the thing that makes my heart race the most.

Being able to see this family work both in the city and in their home village, it was made clear to me what an extreme duality this younger generation of puppeteers are straddling.  By day and most nights, they live in work apartments near the provincially sponsored dinner theatre they perform at in the city center.  By day, they’re often home in the village, helping their parents harvest, attending to their children and creating a community here.  The juxtaposition of the two worlds is jarring for me; while they bag up the dried rice for winter storage, they ask me about Steve Jobs’ death.  They seem to take it in stride and think of it as nothing more than evolution.  I can’t help but be impressed with their agility.

The night ended with a pickup jam session of traditional Chinese instruments on the second floor of the village’s 200-year old prayer building and watching a performance from the ladies’ dance troupe.  After a rousing few numbers, I exclaimed my joy and insisted on photos with both dancers and audience.  This endeared the audience to me enough somehow so that they insisted on my joining the dance troupe for an encore number.  My initial hesitation was so brief, I hardly heard it – as a year of letting the day take me has nearly always proved rewarding.

A few dance numbers later, we were worn out and the entire village slowly walked back to their homes as the street lights flicked off.  I laid my weary body down onto a skinny plywood bed in the bedroom of my hostess’s daughter.  Around my head was a collection of trinkets, doodles and collectibles that somehow seemed identical to my own 10 year old self.  In my head, were swirls of memories of the day.  I lay there barely wanting to go to sleep as that would mean the end of today’s adventure.  But tomorrow, there’s always another one.

The day would have only been made better if I could have had you all there with me; eating, laughing and dancing the day away.  Hope you enjoy looking at the pictures as much as I did taking them.

Thanks for reading~

Xun Li Cun Village’s Main Gate

Walking down mainstreet

A view from the road

The village’s 200 year old prayer building.  The village is primarily Daoist.


My puppet master points to some names on the epitaphs of prior puppet masters

Making lunch

Eating lunch in the house courtyard

More surrounding beauty

Learning to play cards…

Puppets on the clothesline

A puppet head

The cutters at work

A nightly jam session with about 15 total traditional Chinese musicians

Musicians and puppeteer – everyone finds a way to participate

The dance troupe performs!

The audience watches…

And then implores me to join in.  I couldn’t refuse.  Darn good fun.

A sweet end to a most wonderful day

The Black Sheep

My bus rides from Shangri-la, Yunnan lasted two full days.  While the scenery was breathtaking and the sky visible to me for the first time in eight months, there was barely a single section of straight road lasting for more than a quarter mile.  All of it driven along the mountain road bends that all Chinese bus drivers like to take with unrelenting speeds.  Even with the pretty scenery, I was only too happy to arrive in Tengchong.

Tengchong is a city that lies so far west in Yunnan province that it’s almost Myanmar (Burma).   You can tell it’s small by looking at a map of it; instead of a mind-numbing web of streets and endless ring roads, there are just a few main roads that carry you all the way from end to end.  Their population is a mere five hundred thousand people, which in China standards could be a village.  The city’s only tourist draw is a few scenic spots and natural volcanic hot springs.  It was no surprise, then, to find that my hostel was kitty corner to the living quarters of the puppeteers I was going to meet.

I first met these Yunnan artists at the shadow puppet conference in Huanxian, Gansu this past September.  I had toured the shadow puppet exhibitions before the conference opened and was excited to see Yunnan represented in a small corner of the space.  I’d seen Yunnan puppets before in a few museums and if you’ve seen enough Chinese shadow puppetry, you know they’re the most unique of all the styles.  They stand out in the shadow puppet crowd.

The designs aren’t necessarily the most agile or finessed, but they carry with them a certain command and boldness.  They demand you look at them.  I love the coarse lines and catching colors.

When I finally met the Yunnan cutters on the first day of the conference, the people themselves were unique, too.  Soft spoken, earnest, and a bit shy; these guys also stand out in the puppeteer crowd.  I liked them.  I knew I had to visit.

Upon arrival in Tengchong, I was hit with a flurry of texts planning my visit.   I woke early the next morning and started my work.  Crossing the street and winding my way around the large complex, I found the puppeteers living quarters on the second floor of a non-descript apartment building not far from the performance space.

They are currently employed by a larger company to perform nightly shows in two beautifully designed restaurants that stand side by side in a small cultural shopping complex.

Dinner Theatre #1

Dinner Theatre #2

They spend their days rehearsing or fixing puppets, even tackling a few independent art projects and at sundown they perform.  They start at one, performing a more modern piece and follow it up with a slightly more traditional piece at the second.  In both, hoards of Chinese tourists eat in a hurry and take in the show while they chat.  It’s a comfy atmosphere and a friendly crowd.

And while it’s certainly not traditional shadow puppetry, it’s performed well and beautiful to watch.

A couple eats a Tengchong signature dish, Er Kuai.

They also run a small store in a little ‘cultural mall’ on the city’s edge.  Here, they have a rudimentary mini-museum of old Tengchong puppets and sell machine made Shaanxi style puppets.  I’m guessing this is because the Shaanxi puppets are in mass production and the knowledge of and market for Tengchong puppets is relatively small.

The store front.  

Machine made Shaanxi puppets sit atop a small cabinet of antique Tengchong puppets.

In my initial days here, it was easy to see that this experience was different.  Partially, it’s the puppets themselves.  Mostly, it’s geography.  My sense from both the conference and now is that they’re the underdog, the forgotten cousin, the black sheep.  Most of the shadow puppet artists in the north have heard of them, but few have visited.

I am drawn to the underdogs.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps its because I know how much more work it takes when you’re going upstream.   I’d rather they not do it alone.  I’m quite sure I’ll find my way back here as soon as I am able.

I’m visiting their home in the countryside tomorrow to see them cut puppets first hand.

Thanks for reading~


{For a more recent update on this troupe (2014), follow this link.}

Symbolic Lineage

Throughout this year-long journey, my allegiance has started to shift.  When given a fork in the road, I now swerve from the performance and choose the puppet itself.   It’s the mystery I’m drawn into, for embodied within these miniature two-dimensional representations is a symbolic encyclopedia of Chinese history and of a people.   Layers upon layers of meaning, perfected with a blade and a piece of leather.   And each region interprets this encyclopedia differently.

I’ve been spending most of the week with the Sichuan University Museum in Chengdu.  Comparing their shadow puppet collection with the rest of their carefully selected works on four floors has connected some dots.

Their shadow puppet collection is miniature compared to the Chengdu Shadow Puppet Museum’s, but the pieces are nothing short of exquisite.  Each one of them, carefully selected and displayed in the most tasteful way I’ve seen yet; backed with natural muslin fabric and framed with dark wood in an artful arrangement on four walls.   They even offered me a chair.  So, I took out my pencil and notebook and started to draw.

Drawing is a step in the learning process just below cutting the puppet itself.  It requires meticulous observation that is then processed through your mind, heart and into your hand.  It’s amazing to realize just how much you haven’t been seeing once you start to draw something.

The complexity of the puppet designs can be overwhelming and their simplicity, breathtaking.  Taking the time to enter into a pattern and follow it from top to bottom, getting lost somewhere in between, and finding yourself again far away from where you started is dreamlike for someone like me.  I’ve been returning all week; drawing, getting lost and getting found again.

Shadow puppetry is a direct representation of the characters it depicts: emperors, empresses, warriors, peasants, and an even better representation of the symbology that China has carried throughout its history.   Yinyang (balance/harmony), Earth/Heaven (rectilinear and round shapes in a single symbol), zodiac animals, flowers, sun symbols, peaches for longevity – the list goes on and on.    I have yet to decode most of it, but the mystery has me.

The process of interpreting a 3D object into 2D and designing for shadow is where the creativity comes in.  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.  Have fun getting lost.

~Thanks for reading.

These first set of photos are more literal design translations from actual period objects and a similar shadow puppet design.

Embroidered Border

Crane Emblem

Typical border pattern on sleeve and pant cuffs

 This second set of photos are beautiful examples of my favorite three styles and their most intricate puppets.

Chengdu Style Puppets (not to be confused with Sichuan style puppets)

Tengchong, Yunnan Puppets (from the late Qing Dynasty)

Hua Xian, Shaanxi Puppets

An Education

On and off, I’ve been cutting Shaanxi style puppets for a total of about four months now.  I have never spent this much time on a single skill in my entire life.  Or, never in this way.

I’m slow at this.  I’ve been slow to pick this up, slow to progress and slow to master.  At first I thought it was what I was learning.  So much of it was new to me: designs, proportions and aesthetics, a new range of tools and materials and an entirely new process.  Now, onto my fourth month, I don’t think that’s it.  I think it’s how I’ve been  learning it.

When I first arrived in 2008 and started my apprenticeship, I was stunned by the lack of teaching in my teaching.  I believe my first ‘intro session’ consisted of about fifteen words and three quick demo movements.  With that, they shoved a knife into my hand and expected me to somehow keep my fingers.  I was paralyzed with a simple lack of knowledge.  For a week or so, my poor language ability coupled with my initial shyness rendered me a total observer.  As the weeks grew on, I slowly began to try more and pose questions when one materialized cohesively enough to ask it.

The experience was frustrating to say the least.  After weeks, I would discover a small technique I’d been doing wrong.  Weeks lost.  Weeks that could have been saved with a little careful overseeing or guidance or what we might consider ‘teaching’ in the West.   I went home not fully understanding anything other than that I had to come back to figure it out.

At home, my set of hand blades had remained untouched for over a year.  The last time I did rouse them from their extended vacation, I hadn’t tried for more than a few minutes before I threw my hands up and put my knives back in their box.

This time around, though, I’m different.  Or I wanted to believe I was.

For the last four weeks, I’d gone to the puppet-cutting studio every afternoon.  For four hours, I put my head down and cut.  Trace, cut, trace, cut, break, trace, cut, trace, and cut some more.  The repetition is torturous at times and the tedium maddening, but I was determined.  I knew this is what it would take.

During my last week, I was finally keyed into the missing piece of my puppet cutting puzzle.  I was having trouble with my cowhide getting too moist and the blades pushing the cowhide instead of cutting right through it.  This has been the problem plaguing my consistency.  I thought it was the cowhide.  I tried cutting it drier and drier until I my elbows and shoulders ached with incorrectness.  Finally, after weeks of swearing under my breath, I turned to my friend Lao Yuan and gave him a cross-eyed frenzied look.  He didn’t seem at all surprised.  “Is it my blades?”  I whined.  He sauntered over and lazily checked my knives.  “Yours are too thick.”  I looked.  I had sharpened them to the same width that everyone else sharpens them to.

“No, not that way”, he said, “this way”, and turned my knife 45 degrees.

{Blades switched out to .4mm thickness}

The thickness of the blade I was using was .5mm.  He suggested using a .4mm thick blade.  He let me use one of his.  I sharpened it using the same technique I’d been using and within 5 minutes, my blade was gliding through the design.  It was my missing piece.

.1mm difference.  I uttered more than a few expletives under my breath.

Couldn’t someone have just told me that?

No, they couldn’t have.  I had to find out for myself.  It’s an education.  All of it.  Instead of being told how to do it right in my first week of study, I’ve taken four months (throughout four years) to try out every possible wrong way and have found the right way by a process of elimination.

This is the way shadow puppetry has been passed down for almost two thousand years: the age-old Master/Apprentice system. Without institutionalized education and the printed word, learning was done in real time.  It was first hand, not second hand.  This is the way my cutting teachers were taught.  This is the way my cutting teacher’s teachers were taught.  You get the gist.

This way carries with it some hidden gains along with the pain.  If your teaching method requires that I fail 1000 times before I succeed, my understanding of the word ‘fail’ takes on an entirely new connotation.  It is necessary and encouraged.  The bigger I fail, the more I learned.  And this education by process of elimination, the simple lapse of time this takes, is the only way to settle the method into your body.  There is no truncated process and no shortcuts.  You just have to do it and keep on doing it.  After putting in 400 hours of cutting, my hands and body are beginning to understand something my mind and language ability could never fully convey to you.  And I still have a long way to go.

But there are downsides for me, too.  Mentally, I’m more exhausted from this single month than the six before it.  I find myself irritable and stubborn more often I’d like.  The frustrations at the work table coloring my daily life.  At first, I’d convinced myself that this was all apart of it, and it is; I needed to try it with everything I had. After the fact, it’s easy to see where I pushed too hard – but you usually can’t see the line while you’re stepping past it.

With a moment to breathe and regroup before I head out of Xi’an and onto the last third of my adventure, I have to gather myself back from the full assimilation; to remember that I am me inside of this education; impatient, anxious, and Annie.  There’s a middle ground to be found, I just have to find it.

Still, I don’t think I’d trade the effort for less than.  It’s a hard won success and one I’m damn proud of.   I’m just glad to be on the other side of the mountain, heading downhill again.

Thanks for reading~


My first full puppet: unpainted and unassembled.  Measuring 12″ high.