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~

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