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.


9 responses to “An Education

  1. Your puppet is gorgeous, Annie!

    And thanks for explaining the value of experiential learning. I’m still not sure I’d prefer wasting 4 months on a .1mm knife change instead of a simple word from a teacher at the beginning, but it made more sense to me.

  2. Annie, it’s beautiful!! Trish

  3. “I went home not fully understanding anything other than that I had to come back to figure it out.” Annie, this says it all. One could not describe the experience any better than your quote above. It speaks passion, determination, and success for achieving your goal, because you “…had to come back to figure it out.” I salute you!

  4. Alison Buttenheim

    “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.”

    Great post, Annie. The quote above made me think of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and the 10,000 hour rule – the minimum needed to be an expert. No shortcuts!

  5. Great entry! The puppet is stunning and your message about failing well said. Keep writing Annie. This is a fantastic record.

  6. wow! way to go! you did it!

  7. Well done Annie , this is your suce

  8. Thanks for the support, everyone! It helps keep me going…

  9. Lizzie (Beth) Upitis

    Insightful writing of your great adventure – life. It feels wonderful to visit with you in China. I see the mix of singing, 5-yr old Annie stealing the show with scholar Annie, still stealing the show. I grin and rejoice. Thanks.

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