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.}


5 responses to “The Black Sheep

  1. The couple at dinner is stunning. It is no wonder you love these.

  2. Alison Buttenheim

    Hip hooray for the underdogs, and for your sharing their stories with us, Annie. We’re going to miss these posts so much when you come home, but at least we’ll have *you* here. I’m simply awash in curiosity about how this experience will shape your professional trajectory – what projects and products will emerge, how you will share all this extraordinary knowledge with the rest of the world, where it will take you. I look forward to watching it all unfold!!

    Thanks, too, for the wonderful snail mail postcards, for which there is no substitute. We love getting an AnnieGram.

  3. The Tengchong puppets are beautiful. How great that you are able to see this style and be that far west. Awesome. I am rooting for these puppeteers!

  4. Annie, the Tengchong puppets are beautiful. I see and like the boldness of them. How cool you are able to be that far west and find the puppets!

  5. Alison B! I’m just as curious to see where this all takes me too. So many roads to go down, not sure which one will be the one just yet. Hope I see you guys soon!

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