The Odd One Out

I’m back on the mainland and one thing is clear.  I was not ready for it.  My transition back home at the beginning of the year was suspiciously uneventful – just a day of jetlag and a never-ending appreciation of the clear blue skies.  People usually remark that it’s not culture shock one has to be prepared for, but the reverse.

In my case, it’s the reverse of the reverse.  While my months in the US have seemed uneventful, they were indeed filled with an unconscious assimilation.

Within a week or two, I was used to metered interactions, this thing called my Car, and buying all my groceries in bags/boxes/cartons.  Within a month, that patient pace I had developed on the road was replaced with the familiar buzz of anxiety and stress brought on by the practicalities of making a life as an artist and a million other responsibilities.  More surprising was how quickly my expectations returned.   If my expected 10 minute route was thwarted by unexpected tunnel block or a website made me search for the purchase button – my sudden annoyance caught me off guard.

I knew something would be different this time around, how could it not?  You always return to a place changed and that change is most apparent once you are there and can compare yourself with your last self.

This time is no different.  I am disappointed with my short temper, my disbelief at the pollution and the chaos and my overall disorientation.

The group of foreign puppeteers attending the conference in Hong Kong and I have sojourned into the heart of mainland China.  Hunan province is lodged directly in the center of China’s enormous landmass and is widely known as Mao Tze Deng’s birthplace.   While the idol worship of Communist China’s first Chairman has slowly evaporated elsewhere, his visage is omnipresent here; he’s hanging from rearview mirrors or staring at you from large street posters and even from the lapels of workmen.

We are in Changsha, Hunan’s capital city, to check out their provincial puppet troupe among other things and it’s one of the most indistinguishable Chinese cities I’ve ever visited.  It’s easy to get lost here, as one block so resembles another.  This city was decimated during the Japanese occupation, which means no building is more than 60 years old.  They’re constructing at an unprecedented rate like the rest of China – across the riverbanks, new apartment developments go on for miles.  Last year, I may have been as excited as everyone else was about the future in those hollow buildings, but now they look like an ominous foreshadowing.   See? I’m grumpy again.

Thankfully, as usual, the puppets have come to my rescue.  And right now, I’m desperate for them.

The Hunan Puppet and Shadow Art Protection and Inheritance Center of China (if that’s not a mouthful, I don’t know what is) is one of the biggest and best-trained troupes around.  Their welcome performances were an absolute delight and while their shows are entirely modern, they are some of the best I’ve seen.   During our tour and a few short meetings, I couldn’t get any straight answers about what exactly was being done on the preservation and protection side.  As of now, they seem to function primarily as the province’s biggest puppet troupe and are doing that swimmingly. Hopefully, the preservation initiatives will get underway soon.

On our third day in Changsha, we headed into the countryside.  In classic Chinese tour guide fashion, we hadn’t been told where we were going until the night before.  A traditional Hunan shadow puppet family!  I eagerly charged all my batteries, cleared my digital cards and packed a fresh notepad.

By 11 the next morning, we had pulled in front of a two-story tiled house far into the outskirts of Changsha.  The air out here felt green and expanded, I took a few grateful gulps in.  The Wang Cheng shadow troupe is headed up by descendants of a famous Changsha player who passed away just a few years ago.  They dedicate a second floor room to his mini-museum: a framed portrait, some articles and some of his best puppets.

With the rest of the puppeteers around, it was hard to ask questions or do anything other than observe. So I turned my eye to the objects in the room and snapped away.  The puppets themselves are so infinitely different than any other shadow tradition in China, that I found myself just staring.

The Hunan shadow puppet is traditionally made out of thickly layered tag-board.

Originally, they glued many layers of paper together to make a thicker board.  Within the cuts – some are left open and others are filled in with paper-thin colored tissue to resemble the translucent leather from other traditions.  What’s left is a striking combination of black, white and colored shadow.  More interesting is that they’re the only tradition that consistently uses a ¾ turned face (some regions do have these puppets but they’re unique and represent certain characters) and this face is usually a solid piece of leather with painted detail – no cuts.

I’ve been told the use of paper in some regions was because of religious beliefs that banned the killing of animals, but here in Hunan they explained that it was used out of necessity – leather was too expensive.

More surprisingly is that you can cut this thick cardstock the same way you would a Yunnan or Northeastern puppet – by sawing a thick blade through the material.

The troupe also makes shadow puppets out of leather now and performed with them for our performance.

Some of the newer puppets were cut out of two thinner layers of cardstock and sewn together with the layers of colored tissue already in between.  I think you’ll agree that they’re all stunning – in shadow or out of it.

And if this wasn’t enough to satisfy the grumpiest of returning researchers, there was a short performance to behold in the living room.  Within minutes, the troupe had erected the cleverest of screens, much smaller than even the smallest screens I’ve seen in Shaanxi province.

They’re also the first troupe to advertise their telephone number in leather.

Once the show started, it was my usual battle between documentation and watching the performance with my own eyes.  The performance techniques are somewhat simplistic with just two control rods on most of the puppets, but it didn’t matter.  Those shadows could captivate standing perfectly still.  And best of all, the singing!  How I wish I could bottle it in a conch shell and bring it back with me for you all to hear.  So deep and clear and strong.  It made me want to get up on a bench and shout for more.

They were done all too soon, urged to finish quickly as they assumed the tourists wouldn’t want the whole show.   How I wished I could have stayed there all day, listening to them.

I’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs to lead me back someday soon.

Thanks for reading~

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3 responses to “The Odd One Out

  1. i love the sewn together parts!

  2. Don MacLeod

    Next time you make a puppet I want to watch

  3. chelinmiller

    It’s lovely to hear that you are back! Let me know if you come to Beijing, or if you need anything while you are here. Take care and keep enjoying!

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