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
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
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 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.
Thanks for reading~