Monthly Archives: November 2011

How To Cut A Plastic Puppet

It occurred to me a while back that any of you crafty people reading this blog at home might be wanting to try and make a few of these puppets yourself.  It’s impossible to get the translucent leather in the states (unless you process it yourself) – so what would the alternative be?

Luckily, during my visit to Hubei, I got my answer.

Master Qin is currently the ONLY master I’ve seen using plastic to create puppets.  When I asked him about his reasons, he simply said the color is truer on clear plastic and they’re easier to perform with and store.  The former is certainly true, but I have yet to be convinced about the latter.  Still, Master Qin is a fantastic designer and his puppets suffer little from the change in materials.


Tools & Materials

Your design

A Linoleum or Rubber Cutting Mat

Translucent Plastic Sheeting, 1/16” – 1/8” thick

A set of hand blades, curved and flat

A fine sharpening stone and awl

Bottle of water for sharpening knives

{Use a plastic that is flexible but firm.  Nothing too shiny.  Acetate is a good choice)

Begin by printing your design onto paper.  Lay this design under your piece of plastic and tape to secure.  There is no tracing of the pattern onto the plastic, instead you keep the design underneath as cutting guide.

The set of cutting knives are long handled blades in an array of straight and curved shapes.  From what I could see, Master Qin mostly uses a flat blade that is about 1/3” wide and a slightly curved blade around a 1/8” diameter circle.   These blades are handmade, but I’m sure you could find an adequate set for use or revision in your local wood carving shop or art store.

<These cutters are all right handed, flip this if you’re a lefty.>

With a small hand blade in your right hand, place the tip of your knife onto your design for the initial cut.  Use your left hand to brace the work and your cutting mat.  Simply press down with the blade, directly perpendicular through the plastic and into your mat.  Move the blade slightly alone the line of your design and repeat.

For smaller, more intricate designs, Master Qin often started with the smaller curved cuts and finished with the straight cuts – almost assembly line in progression.

I tried cutting for a while and while it certainly takes a lot of strength, it takes the least skill of all that I’ve studied so far.  It’s a slow and simple process of cutting the design out as you see it.  The blade only moves in a cookie cutter like fashion – up to down, punching out the unwanted excess.

The paint Master Qin uses on his plastic puppets is directly translated as ‘Lacquer’ or ‘Oil Paints’.  I couldn’t tell which one just from looking at his palette, but I’d go with lacquer or enamel paints for durability.

Once your design is finished, the pieces are connected together with small pieces of wire or string.   Add control rods and you’re ready to entertain your family, school, best friends and Broadway.

Happy cutting!

Thanks for reading~

Lost and Found

Even after nine months of living here, I’m still amazed at how big China is. The land, the people, the history, the stories, the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics – all of it is China big. It’s on a whole other scale from what we’re used to. And it’s even more amazing then, when in this land of huge, you can find something so small.

I’d heard about the Cui Shadow Puppet Museum the way most of us did. In December 2010, the New York Times published an article featuring the small shadow puppet museum in the outskirts of Beijing. A few of my friends and colleagues sent it to me and I read with eager delight. (Click here to read the original article)

Upon arrival in Beijing, I asked a few of my teachers about the museum. One teacher told me they were moving, another told me it was too far away and yet another had never heard of it. I tried to seek a working phone number from the internet or other contacts, but to no avail.

Summer came around and I returned to Beijing but I still didn’t go. I had no more information than I did in the spring and I was busy. I left for the fall without thinking twice about it.

During my latest trip in Hubei, my master asked where I was headed after my visit with him. “Beijing”, I said. “Beijing? Have you been to the Cui Museum?” He asked. I explained my hesitancy. His son piped up and told me they had returned in July and would be around until next spring

Armed with the knowledge that they were actually there, I decided to give it a go when I returned to Beijing. On my first free day, I headed out on the subway with just an address in hand (I still hadn’t found a working phone number) and headed to the closest ‘Golden Bridge Park’ – which wasn’t close at all. As addresses often go in China, it wasn’t the right one. Two more hours of subway riding and I had at least arrived in the right vicinity. The address says Beijing, but it’s not the Beijing you and I know. It’s so far southeast of the city that you actually have to get off the city line and transfer to an extension line. It’s a full 80 minutes from the city center. As I finally ended my eternal subway ride, I stepped out into the great unknown of a Beijing suburb.

I wandered to the first bus stop heading south. Already waiting on the dusty meridian was a curly haired foreigner. For a few seconds, I wondered if she was lost. Then it occurred to me we might just be headed to the same place. I caught her eye and asked her where she was headed. “To the shadow puppet museum”. “Me too!” I said, “what brings you there?” “I’m writing a paper”. Call it instinct, hope or just dumb luck, but I had to ask “what’s your name?” She looked at me with a little apprehension and answered “Beatriz”. Of course, she was. Beatriz had emailed me a while back; she was working on a research paper about shadow puppetry on her year abroad from Spain and had been following my blog, but as it was now blocked by China’s firewall she had contacted me directly. We had never met face to face.

It was one of those strange moments that you can’t decipher whether it’s fantastically extraordinary or just plain obvious. Two people after the same small thing, no matter how far they’ve come, are bound to bump into each other at some point. The fact that it was this random afternoon, at the very outskirts of China’s capitol, at a no name dusty bus stop, made it feel extraordinary.

We rode together and found our way to the very tucked away Cui Shadow Puppet Museum. It resides on the first floor of a plain looking apartment building in a plain looking apartment complex. If you don’t speak Chinese, I wouldn’t recommend trying to find this place on your own.

When we arrived, I explained who I was and how Beatriz and I ended up here. After a short chat, Mr. Cui took us around the museum himself. He and his wife have purchased all three apartments on the first floor of their building and converted two into a small, cramped and chaotic place to display their collection. After walking through the rooms by the numbered order, I had still failed to see any sort of organization. The cases and rooms are not divided by region or time period or by shows. Sporadic bulletin boards are bursting with newspaper clippings, posters and pamphlets from items they’ve collected over the years and the skeleton of the apartments are still visible under all the puppetry.

It’s a bit of information overload, but that’s part of its charm. While other collections may have better pieces and display them in a more cohesive way, this museum almost feels like shadow puppetry itself: resourceful, cluttered and passionate.

But the clutter may not last. The couple plans to spend much of next year back in America, both with their son in New York and at the Indiana Children’s Museum, who has hired them in a long-term arrangement. When they’re gone, their museum remains closed.

Part of me is glad to see Chinese shadow puppetry making its way west towards America, but much of me is sad that the Cui’s had to look for opportunities away from home. Hopefully, this is just a new chapter in Chinese shadow puppetrys evolution for survival. Hopefully, they’ll find their new home and hosts welcoming.

Thanks for reading~

{My photos from this trip are few, as photography inside the museum is prohibited}

Directions on how to get to the Cui Shadow Puppet Museum(open this year until end of December 2011)

Name: 北京皮影艺术博物馆

Beijing Piying Yishu Bowuguan

Beijing Shadow Puppet Arts Museum

Curators: Mr. Cui (Cui Yongping) and Mrs. Cui (Wang Shuqing)

Address: 北京通州马驹桥, 金桥花园, 16

Beijing, Tongzhou Majuqiao, Jinqiao Huayuan, Number 16

Beijing City, Tongzhou District, Maju Bridge, Jinqiao Garden Complex, Building 16

Museum Phone # {86}010-60502692

Mobile Phone # 13161334683

Email: (not sure how often they check this)


Take Beijing Subway Line 5 heading south towards Songjiazhuang

Transfer at Songjiazhuang 宋家庄(last stop) to the Yizhuang亦庄 Line

Get off the Yizhuang 亦庄 line at the Tongji Nanlu 同济南路 stop

From there, hail a taxi (about 15 yuan) to the address above

Or take bus 542 or 821 to the Majuqiao #1 stop 马驹桥一号桥

The museum is in a building complex on the EAST side ofXihou Jie 西后街

You’ll have to ask (either with words or with a print out of the information above) around until someone knows how to direct you. There are no signs on the outside of the building complex.

Happy hunting~

How To Cut A Yunnan Puppet

During my trip to Tengchong, I had a chance to sit down with the puppet masters and cut with them for an afternoon in their village called, Xun Li. I was struck by the similarities to Tangshan’s cutting style.

Scholars have a few theories of how shadow puppetry made its way from the north all the way down to the southwestern edge of China. Some say it came from Sichuan province, some say it sprung up independently (which I think is pretty improbable), and some say it trickled down all the way from the Qing dynasty capital of Beijing.

Looking at the cutting styles, I would say that the latter is true. They use almost the exact same tool set, same method of cutting and even similar cowhides. The only major difference is design and painting methods – and in this regard they’re different from the entire country.

While the cutting quality is rough, the outcome is still some of the most stunning puppet design I’ve seen in the entire country. Partially, this is because of the vivid coloring technique that is singular to Yunnan.

Tools & Materials

Your design

A Waxboard (see explanation below)

Translucent leather, anywhere from .6mm – 1/8” thick

2 hand blades, similar to the size of an exacto knife

A set of punches (3 or so) of varying sizes

Needle tool

A small hammer

A wooden punch board

A fine sharpening stone

Bottle of water for sharpening knives

Begin by choosing your design and cutting those pieces out of your leather about 1/2” wider than the finished edge. Use thinner pieces of leather for the body center and upper arm pieces and thicker leather on the head and feet pieces. To trace your pattern, place the printed design under your translucent leather and scratch the pattern onto the leather hide with a needle tool.

Similar to Hebei style cutting, the cowhide is cut dry – eliminating the arduous process of perfectly moistening the leather before cutting. Make sure your blades are sharp and read to go.

Yunnan’s wax cutting board is almost identical to Tangshan’s; beeswax and ash melted together and poured into a 8”x8” square wooden board with a lip – except that they add the ash from Camellia leaves which is said to help keep your knife clean from wax build-up as you cut in and out of the board. And just like that, you’re ready to cut.

<These cutters are all right handed, flip this if you’re a lefty.>

With a small hand blade in your right hand, sharp side facing up – place the tip of your knife into your initial cut. Use your left hand as the guide for both the board and the leather. After your blade has cut through your hide and into the wax, use a sawing motion up and down along the first line of your design. Use the board to make sure you’ve cut through the leather completely. With curved cuts, you can spin the board as you work.

Consistent with the laid-back Yunnan culture, the cutters told me they have no set cutting order per design. It’s simply a ‘cut as you will’ process. They also don’t have a standard hand position (as you can see in the pictures).

Instead, you find what works best for you through trial and error.

Instead of keeping line drawings or photocopies of old puppets, the Yunnan makers make charcoal rubbings of their old puppets on rice paper. Instead of looking like an archived design, the rubbings themselves are a piece of art.

The Yunnan puppets are particularly unique in design, but I think what sets them apart most is their coloring. The Yunnan puppets are vivid in a way that no other shadow puppet I’ve seen is. Instead of just intense color, it glows.

The Yunnan puppet makers get imported mineral pigments from the bordering country of Myanmar (Burma). Most artists know how wonderful (and difficult) natural pigments are to work with; their color impossible to replicate with man made materials. These pigments are mixed with just a bit of animal hide glue and then painted onto slightly-moistened cowhide. The effect is what sets these puppets apart.

Happy cutting!

Thanks for reading~

The Yellow Brick Road

I hadn’t planned on coming to Hubei Province.  It’s stuck in an odd place – floating somewhere in the middle of the mainland.  Instead, after Yunnan, I had planned to return northward to Chengdu and finish up some more museum work.  However, as my accessibility to the Chengdu Shadow Puppet Museum changed, I had a free week before I had to be back in Beijing.

I got out my list of known contacts and a provincial map of China.  I highlighted the provinces I still wanted to get to – and wouldn’t you know it?   Hubei is perfectly on the road home from Yunnan to Beijing…if I go by ground.

From Tengchong, it’s a 12-hour bus ride to Kunming and then a thirty-hour train to Wuhan.  From there, another short train ride to the small town of Xiaogan and then a one hour car ride to the even smaller town of Yunmeng.   When I do finally arrive, all I want to do is take a terribly wasteful American shower and have a day-long nap, but instead I’m driven straight to meet Master Qin at his Tea House.

We arrive at the tiled, three-story building stuck in the middle of similar buildings along an old walking street just five minutes drive from the hotel I checked in at.  On the outside is a very plain looking sign overhead and a small chalkboard to the right that announces the day’s show.  Inside, a 30 ft by 30 ft room is packed with about 75 elders and smoke from about 75 active cigarettes.  Half of them are watching a shadow puppet show and half of them are playing cards or chatting with their friends.

You can sense the comfort inside even before you step through the door.  This is a crowd that comes everyday, for hours.  They sit, they catch up – it’s its own community within the four walls of this shadow puppet teahouse.

Master Qin has run this teahouse for about 30 years.  He began it after his performances in the countryside were being played to fewer and fewer people.  He performs everyday (yes, Sundays too) from 11:30-2:30 in the afternoon.  For short stories, it can take a few weeks of daily shows to finish.  For long stories, it can take over three months.  The tickets are only 1.5 Yuan (about 22 cents).

The place itself is nothing to speak of:  a rough cement floor, simple benches with shelves on the back for teacups, not a thing on the walls and a host of ceiling fans that hang in wait for the summer months.   They only serve tea and hot water.  The stage is just a few feet off the floor and accessible by a small doorway on the stage right side.  The backstage resembles a cluttered shoebox.  The 10’x6’ space is barely enough room to fit all the musicians, instruments, and puppets.  Every available nook is stuffed with something.

What a reward at the end of a long road, my Emerald City.  I am delirious with exhaustion and excitement.  This is the kind of place I had hoped existed but hadn’t imagined yet.  If not the endgame for how traditional shadow puppetry might transition to the city, then it’s certainly a transitory point.  Daily, active performance at the center of a community experience.  Yes, the clientele is mostly over 60 years of age, but there’s something to this.  I can feel it.

I return to the teahouse for the next four days to sit and watch from 11-3pm.  At first, the crowd is wary of me and my young-American-female-ness.  But after they see my face for a few afternoons, those stares are exchanges for smiles and curiosity.  I’m handed pumpkin seeds to snack on and offered a beer.  Someone asks if I want to play cards with them.

At the end of each day, I am invited upstairs to the family’s living quarters and we share a late lunch.  Master Qin, his gruff-voiced wife and son sit around a rickety card table on pink plastic stools, eating intensely.  They are quiet, or they seem so after the clang and buzz of the downstairs teahouse.   Sometimes we look at old photo albums, sometimes I watch the master cut puppets and sometimes I just talk with them.  I make sure to repeatedly tell the master just how amazing his teahouse is.  He seems so quietly pleased about this – I wonder if he knows just how amazing it is himself.   And it really is amazing.

The learning here is endless for me.  Even when I tire of sitting on the hard benches, my curiosity carries me.   Usually, I’m privileged to see a short traditional show lasting over 1 hour.  Here, I can come and watch for 3 hours, everyday.  

The shows aren’t what we westerners are used to sitting through.  Instead of 15-minute attention span enablers, these shows resemble the old 10-hour all-night shows of shadow history past.  The action is slow to progress and often repetitive.  You tune in to pass the time, to hear a story and to belong to one.

Master Qin at the Mic

Notes for the show

My view of the back of his feet.  He uses foot cues to signal scene changes and punctuations to his musicians who sit behind him.

Puppets waiting for their turn in the spotlight

The Emperor enters

Re-reading my hand written notes from the week, I’m struck by my observations.  There’s the expected:  a drawing of the audience’s hat assortment, notes about how the puppeteer communicates with the musician for the improvised scenes and quick guesstimations on how they can make a living off 1.5 yuan tickets.   More unexpectedly, though, my notebooks are filled with impressions of atmosphere, community and the bonding power of a shared experience centered around live performance.  “The room is full of curved spines, toothless laughter and the warmth of friendship.”  “The rain outside today makes the inside even cozier – we are all like flies to the light – transfixed.”  “I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon; drinking tea and watching my favorite shadow theatre soap show with my best friends.”

It stayed this way through the week.  While the outside grew colder and grayer with the oncoming season, the inside would seem cozier and brighter.

On the last day, I am taken to a fancy lunch at the end of the day.  One of the business men who runs the ‘new’ teahouse in which Master Qin gives shorter performances, asked me ‘haven’t you seen enough?’  ‘No,’ I answered, ‘not even close.’

Thanks for reading~