Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Pot of Gold – Part 2

(continued from previous blog – to read, click here.)

That night, I didn’t sleep much.  While everyone else in Shanxi is barely heating their homes, the Changchun hotel decided to keep our rooms at a balmy 78 degrees.   I was in paradise and I was anxious.  I finished my novel, caught up in my journal and paced around in my stocking-less feet (heaven for my thawing toes!).   The Ministry of Culture?  It sounded like a very intimidating group of people.  What if I couldn’t even get into the building?  Was my North Face outfit proper clothing for such a meeting?  What if I needed an appointment?  If I did, would I wait another day?  I already had a ticket to Beijing late tomorrow evening – my days of waiting had whittled away my precious time.

After listening to myself fret for hours, it was pretty obvious I really wanted their help.  I really, really wanted to find this troupe. Ostensibly, it was just another trip, but deep down it had come to mean something much more.  It felt like a mix of proving myself, paving the way for more true puppet hunts next time, showing Zhang Laoshi she couldn’t stop me from finding them and, most importantly, it would mean another shadow puppet troupe had survived.  The true puppet hunt was a self-imposed right of passage I’d given myself.  I knew it wasn’t my fault if I didn’t pass, but it didn’t stop me from wanting it.  Badly.

After rehearsing a multitude of possible introductions I’d give the Ministry tomorrow, finishing my novel and scribbling down a host of notes, I fell into a feverish sleep.  I awoke early the next morning and got myself good and ready.  By 8:15 am, I had eaten at the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet, packed and checked out.  I had 40 minutes before I could head over to the government building.  I spent most of it in the lobby pretending to be absorbed by their fish tanks.  Mostly, I was just counting down the seconds.

At exactly 8:55, I exited the lobby and headed just around the corner.  The government building in Xiaoyi follows the design directive from the rest of the government buildings in China: intimidating, impassable and humongous.  As I walked up the steps, I could feel a wave of calm sweep over me.  Either it was going to go or it wasn’t.  And I would know whether it wasn’t in just a few minutes.

I walked swiftly past the guards and into the elevator with what I hoped was a look of but-of-course-certainly-absolutely-I-know-where-I’m-going.    After I got off on the 8th floor, I looked around with caution.  None of the doors were labeled.  One end of the hall was dark, the other well lit.  A janitor was mopping just a few feet away.  Save her, the place seemed empty.  I quietly asked her if she knew where the Ministry of Culture office was.  She gave me a shrug and kept pushing her mop.  I headed to the first office with voices and peeked in.  They pointed me to room 830.  I walked slowly to the door, took a deep breath and gave a good rap.

I heard muffled voices, some chair squeaks and – it opened.   Just beyond my view of the door frame were four very nice looking people with confused but kind faces.  After the stun wore off, I blabbered through my intro and within minutes they had ushered me to ‘the guy’.

Without ceremony or questioning, he whipped out his cell phone and looked up someone’s name, wrote a few scribbles down and told me Bidu Village.  Only once did he look up and say ‘you’re really and American?’

I grabbed that piece of paper and left uttering my thanks profusely, perhaps subconsciously afraid that they’d revoke the precious information if I let them think about what they’d done for too long.   I had it!  In my hot little hands!  The treasure map!  X marked the spot!

I called the number and a raspy voice told me to “come on over”!

I walked swiftly to the edge of the road without thinking.  I hailed the first taxi and explained myself.  “I’d like to find a shadow puppet master in Bidu Village and talk to him for the day and then I’ve got to get to the train station”.   The luck that hadn’t been with me the three days prior was with me in full force today.  My taxi driver turned out to be an ever curious and funny fellow who was only too game to find a puppet master in Bidu.  He even knew where the village was.

We chatted like old friends for the half hour drive, my mind still a float.  After a few wrong and then right turns, we ended up on a snowy drive, lined by old round-roofed houses.  The mist over the surrounding fields was so heavy that for a moment, I was pretty sure we were the only place on earth.

From a distance, I could see a hunched figure dressed in navy.  The puppet master was waiting for us on the road and waved us down.  His smile could be seen from a long ways out.

After a jumble of introductions and shuffling in through the narrow doorway,

we sat on his Kang bed, all three of us, as he told us about his past as a shadow puppeteer.

Master Wu is the last of a long line of shadow and rod puppeteers.  In 1863, his great-great-great-great (that’s 7 generations) grandfather started a troupe in the small village of Bidu.  They enjoyed nearly a century of success until the Cultural Revolution hit.   Like many of the troupes around the country, the Wu’s were forced to burn their entire puppet stock to ensure no one was performing ‘unapproved’ shows.  Trunks and trunks of handmade puppets burned, decades of oral history up in smoke.

For forty years, Master Wu went back to farming full time.  But he never forgot his stories.  “How did you keep them?” I asked.  “Here” he said, pointing to his head and then his heart.

When Master Wu was allowed to practice again, he had to start from scratch.  And, instantly, he saw the audience had changed.   The troupe stopped performing locally about 10 years ago.

Luckily, in 2005, the small town of Xiaoyi added the then 69-year-old Master Wu to their payroll as a cultural steward.  He gives performances and teaches a bit, but mostly, this small salary allows him to live out his days with little hardship.   In the warm months, he travels to the nearby tourist town of Datong for tourist performances throughout the summer.

At some point, while my taxi hero and Master Wu were chatting amongst themselves, I had a moment.  The weight, the sheer weight, of the entire year in all its good-bad-big-amazingness, came swooping down and smacked me in the chest.   I smarted at the blow.

I had made it.  We had made it.  Shadow puppetry and I had made it through the year, together.  And here is where my rainbow ended.   After traveling for so long, it was incredible to feel like I had arrived somewhere even if it was a destination of my own creation.

We spent the rest of the day on the Kang bed, chatting the day away.

Thanks for reading~

The Pot of Gold – Part 1

The year is coming to a close.  My grant is coming to a close.  And with any great party, you want it to end on a high note.  Or a significant note.  I had just enough time to get in one last destination, close to Beijing, before I had to head back to the States.  So many choices, but such an important place in line.  I went back through my notes for the last time and plotted dots on a small provincial map.  And there was Shanxi.  In all my travel back and forth, I’ve crossed through it a number of times.  I’ve been wanting to research there since 2008, what with all the talk about how similar they are to Shaanxi style, but I still hadn’t found a direct contact to the province.

Oh.  Maybe that was it.

A true puppet hunt.

So it was decided.  I would end this miraculous year of the puppet trail with a true lark.  Xiaoyi city, Shanxi province.  They supposedly had a traditional shadow puppet troupe, but no one had seen or heard from them in while.  I would show up in my borrowed winter coat and somehow look for them.  I would find them or I wouldn’t.  Somehow, it felt right.

My stepping stone into the small city of Xiaoyi was Pingyao, which is a magnificently preserved old-walled city from the Ming Dynasty.   And, they had a youth hostel.  This is always helpful when you need off-the-beaten-trail bus information or an “American Breakfast” while on the road.

I landed in Pingyao on a Saturday morning off a particularly strange overnight train route that required a 2-hour, 3am layover in who-knows-where.  After confirming that I had missed today’s morning bus, I spent the rest of the day taking naps and trying to keep my feet warm on my rubber water bottle.   The next day, I was more than ready.  I headed out to the bus station with my things, aiming for the 10am bus.  But, the bus station attendant informed me that there were no buses today.  There would be some tomorrow.  When I tried to figure out the schedule, I got a shrug in return.  Fine.  I would come back tomorrow.

The rest of that day was spent finishing an Eileen Chang novel and getting most of the way through another.  I drank hot chocolate and took a few walks.  You would think that it was pleasant to have to stay another day in a beautiful old Chinese town, but it wasn’t. I had slept enough, but I was exhausted.  My  short tolerance for tourism had evaporated entirely sometime around October. And, I hate waiting.  Anyone who knows me can tell you that.

Finally, the next morning arrived.  Like a déjà vu, I headed back to the bus station with all my things.  Luckily, the buses were running that day but I couldn’t purchase the ticket yet as the bus hadn’t arrived.  By 9:30, the bus still hadn’t arrived.  At 9:50, the same story.  I’ve been in China long enough to get a ‘sixth sense’ when things are about to not happen.  I sat in that dark bus station weighing this trip.  Would I wait another day?  How long would I wait to get to Xiaoyi?   What was it worth to me?  Even if I got there, I had no guarantee I’d find them.

But, I’m stubborn.  This year has revealed my stubbornness in embarrassing ways.  Often times, it gets me into frustrating situations, but often times I’m rewarded for it.

When the attendant came to find me, still deep in thought on the station bench, she told me that the bus to Xiaoyi had a ‘problem’.  “Of course it does,” I said.  And after an hour of indecision, in that moment I knew I would go.  I would wait, I would walk, I would hire a car, I would go.  “Is there another way to get there?”  There was.

I hoped on the next bus to Fenyang.  We drove on dirt roads through frozen fields and eventually I got dropped off here.  My toes were very cold.

There I waited and got on another long bus to Xiaoyi.  By then, my toes were small toe-shaped ice cubes.

I got to Xiaoyi and promptly called the one phone number my Beijing master had given me a few days earlier.  Even though I had wanted to go in with no treasure map, it was a relief to have a place to start.  I wasn’t sure who this woman was, but my Master said she was putting up puppet shows.

Of all the people I’ve met throughout the year, I can safely say that Zhang Laoshi is the most interesting.   And that’s the kind of ‘interesting’ when I don’t know how else to put it.

From a clear 50 meters, I could tell she was wearing a shield of makeup and a fake hairpiece that didn’t match her own.  Her rhinestone tiara-like headband was blinding and offset her dark brocade ensemble.  I felt guilty at my instant assumption that she couldn’t be a shadow puppeteer.

Zhang Laoshi first took me to her house, which was a strange Romanesque-like re-creation squished among ubiquitous cement block apartment buildings.  She must have bought three floors and gutted the place in order to build exactly to her specifications.  The place was dripping in gold and chiffon. There was a stuffed sea turtle next to a bust of Chairman Mao.  A large fountain in the front foyer sent peaceful sounds of running water all the way up to the second floor interior balcony.  There was a silent contingent of men waiting on her and though they never said Hello to me, they made sure the floor was mopped and food prepared without us having to ask for it.

The pictures on the mantle of her in a traditional Chinese opera headdress confirmed my assumption.  Zhang Laoshi is not a shadow puppeteer, but an aging opera star who now runs Xiaoyi’s largest theatre.  After watching movies of herself performing in both dramatic films and opera movies, we headed across the parking lot to the theatre’s rehearsal hall.

There, in exact contrast to Zhang Laoshi’s peaceful Roman oasis, were 30 young students playing instruments and fiddling with the puppet screen that sat sturdily in the middle of the room.  They had all joined the theatre as employees after apprenticing with the theatre from the young age of 14 or 15.  The noise was such a welcomed surprise that I realized I’d been holding my breath.  I scurried to the back of the stage and instantly started sticking my nose in everyone’s business.

The students were delightful and equally intrigued with me.  Zhang Laoshi has been all over the world, but the troupe has not.  The theatre has just begun adding shadow puppetry to their opera and dance repertoire.  The students were enthusiastic about their new endeavors with shadow puppetry and eager to perform the shows they had just learned. 

I could tell just by seeing the opening scenery that this was a Master Liu show (he teaches with the Longzaitian Company in Beijing and has been hired by the Xiaoyi company as new puppet master) copied to the T.  Still, it was a well performed piece with live dialogue and music.

Amidst the rehearsals, I continued to question Zhang Laoshi about Xiaoyi’s traditional shadow puppet troupe or cutters.  She blocked me on all counts, replying  with ‘you don’t need to see that’ or ‘we don’t have any’ or ‘they don’t practice anymore’ and following it up with ‘we have traditional shadow puppetry at our theatre’ and ‘they’ve only rehearsed this show for a month’.  Even if all those statements weren’t contradictory, it was clear she wasn’t telling me the truth.  After more questioning, she finally had another theatre employee take me to the ‘master cutters’ workshop – which is really a tourist production workshop situated in a cultural museum next to Xiaoyi’s beautiful daoist temple.

During my requisite tour of the entire museum, I spotted a small photo with a traditional shadow troupe performing.  I spun around and asked my host about them.   He relented; “I don’t know where they are’, he said ‘maybe you can look for them in the spring.”  So they did exist.

I made my escape as early as I could, letting her know I was very thankful and didn’t want to bother her anymore – I would continue the search on my own tomorrow.  When they dropped me off at the closest hotel, they pointed out the monstrous building around the corner and mentioned “that’s the government building – the ministry of culture is on the 8th floor.  You could ask them for help.”  I thought I detected a smirk, but I couldn’t be sure.

-End of Part 1, To be continued

Thanks for reading~

The students of the Xiaoyi Theatre

It Takes An Army

Shandong province has a unique shadow puppet history. It is said to be a direct descendant of the Beijing/Hebei Province shadow form, although you’d never think so to look at it. It is the only style in all of China to have evolved into a one-man show tradition.

I arrived in Tai’an early off an overnight train from Beijing and after checking into my hotel, was swiftly carried off by Weiguo, the son of Tai’an’s only remaining puppet master, Fan Zhang An. Weiguo and I met at the shadow puppet conference in Gansu and we got along so well, I would have visited them regardless of the puppetry.

In 2009, the family started their own ‘cultural’ teahouse, located on a large shopping street just south of Tai’an’s famous Dai Temple. Their bread and butter is largely from the tourists who rotate in throughout the more temperate months to climb the famous Mount Taishan, which is located just outside the city. For now, the below freezing temperatures meant it was just me and them. I didn’t mind the intimacy.

More than any other artist that I’ve met this year, Master Fan is what I would call a true showman. Every single thing he does is with a glowing, jolly graciousness that keeps you smiling – even if you’re not sure what for. His story begins at the young age of 8.

Master Fan was born into a poor family, right in Tai’an city. He can’t recall exactly how he knew he wanted to see a shadow puppet show, but he saved for a year to earn the 5 cent ticket price. At the age of eight, he saw his first show. In a moment, he was hooked for life. For the next two years, he spent his nights waiting by the theatre’s back door or climbing over its wall for any and all chances to lay eyes on those puppets. By the age of 10, he could stand the distance no longer. He gave up his schooling to become a shadow puppet apprentice, despite the prolonged protests from his family.

His apprenticeship was taxing. Out of 8 students, he’s the only one who made it. And, he is the only one to continue the rare one-man shadow tradition.

As the story goes, when shadow puppetry came to Tai’an 600 years ago, it was still largely a tourist town: people have been coming to visit the best of China’s five sacred mountains for over 3000 years. There was an Inn who used shadow puppetry as entertainment to draw the business in. But when times got tough, they had to cut costs somehow. That somehow was entertainment. Slowly, the troupe of 7 or 8 became one.

Fan mastered this performance style by the age of 17.

He performed for a few years, married his wife whom he met at the local theatre, and was conscripted into the Communist army at 21 years of age. For five years, he served in the army but never stopped performing. He created small shows for his fellow soldiers all the while.

At the age of 26, he moved back to Tai’an permanently, but kept on as a government employee. Even now, Weiguo tells me that he’s a particular favorite for the local police and traffic officials. And he never stopped learning. He’s currently one of the last living performers of two types of Shandong ‘clappertalk’, a sort of talk-song accompanied with his own rhythmic scoring.

Click here for a short video of Master Fan and his wife rehearsing for their new number.

And even though Master Fan is the star, it takes an army to keep the one-man show going.

Weiguo ostensibly runs the teahouse, which employs seven full time performers, writers, designers and servers. His sister is there as well as a few new graduates from local art programs. Master Fan’s wife is an accomplished singer and Yangding player (a horizontal-like picking harp) and the two form an amazing performance duo.

The group is tight. They eat together, celebrate birthdays together (which I was also in on – my first China KTV Karaoke experience), and chat the day away while they work. I loved spending time with them.

Master Fan’s Home Puppet Making Workshop

Painting puppets

Mr and Mrs Fan practice a new number in the living room

Then we ate lunch

Shadow puppet workshops in the local classrooms.  @ 75 students per class.

I love her concentration

Fan Weiguo introduces the nighttime teahouse performance

My favorite portion of the performance; the traditional show.  Funny and acrobatic.

And it’s made me think long and hard about who, what and how these last remaining shadow masters are passing down their rare gifts. It’s hard to make blanket conclusions, as the circumstances are so varied throughout the country – but one thing is very clear. Those artists who were lucky enough to choose this profession are still doing it with a rare passion. And of those who were lucky enough to have offspring who either loved or felt compelled to get involved on their behalf are fairing the best.

I often forget that it can be a burden or even a curse to be born as a shadow puppet master’s only son (only men were allowed to practice until after the revolution). In my mind, it’s a bit of a romantic fantasy; imagine my only purpose in life is to become an amazing puppet cutter or performer! But it remains rosy because I don’t have to step beyond the movie montage playing in my mind. Suppose the inheritor had always secretly desired to be an accountant or an academic? A butcher or farmer? A stay-at-home Dad? Or all they wanted was a quiet room and no one to bother them? With America’s faded tradition of inheriting a profession, I have little understanding of what that feels like.

Some of the Masters who inherited the form do carry on the work with verve. Duty can also be an intense creator of passion and motivation in its own right. But many of the Master’s I’ve met, who have inherited this tradition, carry it on with heavy sigh. At this point in their life, they can’t switch carriers or change their skill set – so they’re doing the best they can. And these are the shadow masters who have ‘made’ it. There are probably hundreds still living that didn’t and have been absorbed back into the countryside fabric as swiftly as they appeared.

Hearing stories and meeting artists of both persuasions throughout the year, I’ve noticed the trend. Perhaps this passion is one of the key ingredients in artistic-Darwinism. Luck and passion. Only the most passionate will survive. For whatever their reasons, they will do anything to keep it going. I am inspired by this kind of stubbornness.

In Master Fan’s case, his passion and drive have inspired all of those around him. His family and son carry it on with love and duty and the younger employees have been caught by the bug. I can’t wait to see where they take it, all of them.

Thanks for reading~

Opposites Attract

For the last couple weeks, I’ve been getting myself back into the Beijing swing of things. I love this city. Having first visited in 1996 with a high school semester abroad, it was a shock to land here again in 2008. It was easy to be disgusted by the modernization and change, but after using Beijing as a home base throughout the year – I’ve fallen in love with it again. It’s an amazing combination of old and new China, a harrowing crash and mash of everything past and everything coming.

After settling in for a few days, seeing my friends, eating a chunk of cheese and washing it down with a bit of real red wine, I was ready to dive back into work. I had come back to Beijing to observe the Taiwan puppet company, Taiyuan, collaborate with the Beijing Shadow Troupe. The rehearsals were back at the Tianqiao theatre, where I had first studied with the Beijing Shadow Troupe. I felt like I was on old turf.

Just a few minutes into the first rehearsal, I could see that the collaboration resembled Beijing itself. A true and beautiful negotiation of old making room for the new and the new bringing the old with it. To see such a progressive puppet company working alongside a preservation company was educational and encouraging.

The rehearsals are in mid-stage. Artistic Directors, Robbie and Shanshan have been working on this production for quite sometime. While spearheaded from Taiwan, the final show will include collaborations with both Mainland Chinese and Turkish shadow puppet groups.

The shadow set up included a large-scale puppet screen and light placed center stage and a smaller, more traditional, screen, downstage left. The action transfers from the two screens, incorporating live actors and their shadows into the story telling vocabulary.

I’m not sure how it’s happened, but throughout my yearlong journey, it often seems that I’m at the right place at the right time. That somehow, the universe knows what I need to see next and serves it up on a platter. I’m funded to produce a shadow puppet show in Minnesota this coming spring and throughout the past 4 months, I’ve been churning and working through ideas as best I can while on the road. To see the company rehearse, see their process and see them actively solve shadow problems was perfectly timed.

It’s also great to see this kind of collaboration happening. Not just a traditional troupe trying to survive nor a modern troupe reinventing the shadow puppet wheel, but both of them working together to finesse the collision together. Proving Paula Abdul right: opposites not only attract but they can play nicely together, too.

If you’re in Taiwan in February, check them out at Taiwan 2012 International Arts Festival in Taipei.