In 2008, when I first went to China to study with a traditional shadow puppet troupe, I had a very narrow view of the form. I only studied in one region and one troupe.
In 2011, I visited numerous troupes in nine provinces. Needless to say, I had to reassess some previous assumptions.
Within my first few months of 2011, I became familiar with the Beijing/Hebei and Xi’an areas. And within just a few months, I started to see a very strange trend – one that I wouldn’t fully understand until the end of my trip.
Both the Longzaitian troupe in Beijing, the Yutian troupe in Xi’an and the Shaanxi Provincial Theatre had a show entitled Turtle and Crane. It’s a simple, modern show with colorful animal protagonists and some perfect lilies bordering a perfectly bucolic pond. An even cute and catchier score accompanies a short, 10-minute wander into this cute story. But, even stranger, the puppets were nearly identical – and I couldn’t be certain, but the music sounded the same as well.
During my third viewing of the show in Xi’an, I naïvely asked how each troupe had come by the story. I was always met with an elusive answer. “Do you like it?” or “We’ve done this one for 15 years”. Hmmm. Still, I chalked it up to coincidence or a contained case of the ‘copies’. But, throughout the year, I saw this same performance in nearly all provinces and nearly every troupe – including the more remote cities of Tengchong, Yunnan and Yunmeng, Hubei. S eriously: identical story, scenery, puppets and music.
In December, towards the end of my Fulbright year, I went to the Cui museum in Beijing and asked Cui Yongping about the Turtle and Crane flyer he had posted to the wall in German. “That’s the first show we took to Germany in the 1980s”. This was the first time I realized that the piece might have historical significance.
It wasn’t until I was reading a shadow puppet history book, from China, that I ran across a paragraph that explains Turtle and Crane as the first ‘National’ shadow production of China.
Funded as a government initiative, Turtle and Crane was created by an intellectual named Zhai Yi, in collaboration with two shadow puppet artists, in 1952 just after the formation of new China. On the surface, it was simply an attempt to update the folk art form, but deep down it was meant to pacify what could have otherwise been a tool for subversion.
Of course, the shadow troupes of the time took it up with open arms, not wanting to challenge the new status quo. It spread like wildfire.
Government officials were suspicious of traditional shadow puppetry because of its grassroots origins and its widespread popularity throughout the mainland. Shows made by and for the people meant messages they couldn’t control. At the time of the Communist revolution, and later the Cultural Revolution, troupes were forbidden to perform and most were forced to destroy their inherited trunks of shadow puppetry. In some regions, a single troupe was allowed to continue – as long as they took their directives from the government. Turtle and Crane was just the beginning.
Some argue that shadow puppetry in China has continued through the mid-century but I consider this post-revolution wave a complete break. To see a traditional show compared with a show like Turtle and Crane, I think you’d agree.
I believe in the need for art to evolve along with the people who create it, nothing is truly traditional as it’s always changing, but evolution indicates a continuum. These new shows aren’t made by the community or artists who they are presented to, they have no regional relevance to their constituents and are so universal and pacified as to render them meaningless. And this directive was an immediate, inorganic shift inspired by the country’s regime change.
After China opened back up in the 1980s, traditional troupes tried to pick up where they left off in the 1950s, only to find their shows about emperors and the peasant class had no place in the new China. This break, coupled with urbanization and the digital era, has left traditional shadow puppetry floundering. With no funding and no audiences, troupes have polarized to extremes. Those troupes that were ‘government sponsored’ during the revolution continue to make shadow puppetry along the lines of Turtle and Crane to appeal to the modern audience, while troupes that were banned are trying to eek out a living performing the shows from way back when to an ever dwindling audience.
No one, save a few small projects here and there, has the time, money, or means to start a deliberate movement to bring the traditional form into the modern age. Right now, it’s either or.
As I process through my year and how I want to proceed forward with my research and practice, this desire to foster a more organic evolution has become louder than others (in tandem with my desire to preserve the traditional puppet making methods). But, as a foreigner, can I be the one to push this agenda? I have spoken with a few of my masters on the issue and they are for it. They’ve encouraged me to use whatever elements I’ve gleaned from their teachings and make it my own, fuse it, merge it, mash it and present it to a new audience.
Perhaps in these times of imminent extinction, the need for continuation should trump my worries of being inauthentic. Still, I hope to proceed with a healthy dose of awareness mixed with urgency.
Thanks for reading~