(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~