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


2 responses to “Symbolic Lineage

  1. Thank you for sharing, so eloquently, your love for this amazing craft. You make poetry out of something that others could see as a ‘child’s game’. And if an image says more than a thousand words, your captures enhance your poetry even more. I had never paid much attention to shadow puppets until I visited your blog, and I can’t wait to attend your lecture in Beijing’s CCC later on this year.

  2. I do hope you are able to share your discoveries when you return…multiple times and multiple sharings as we too would need the time to see the beauty you have discovered on this journey.

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