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.
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~