I’ve been wanting to meet Yang Fei for over a year now. I had his contact information since before I left on the Fulbright in 2010, but somehow I missed visiting his home in Xi’an last year.
I worked with both of his children throughout 2011; his son is the affable master puppet maker at the Shaanxi Provincial Theatre and his daughter managed the pottery division at the Yutian studios where I studied leather cutting with master Wang Tianwen. Knowing both of them gave me a false sense of certainty that Yangfei and I would undoubtedly find a time to meet. But, then, all of a sudden – the year was over.
When I knew I would be returning in May of this year, I knew I had no excuses.
This return trip to China had thrown me for a bit of a loop. The unfamiliarity of the south and of traveling in a group left me wondering if last year had been imagined. Xi’an reminded me otherwise.
Xi’an and I have had an inexplicable relationship since the first time I landed there in 2008. I loved it and have loved it best ever since for no apparent reason. Finding myself within the old city walls after two weeks in Hong Kong, Changsha and Chengdu, I could breathe easy.
With my old self back in old China, their daughter, Yangrong, and I set out to meet the Fei’s in their modest 3rd floor apartment at the southern edge of town.Upon our arrival she announced that they weren’t home yet but that we could ‘take a look for ourselves’.
Perhaps it’s my own deference to Chinese shadow puppetry and Chinese custom, but I felt so uncomfortable digging into Yangfei’s treasures without him present. I waited until she pulled a thick paper folder from the table and laid it open in front of me to forget my reluctance.
Inside was pure treasure.
Save Master Wang Tianwen’s pieces, these are the finest example of Shaanxi style shadow puppets I have ever seen. And Shaanxi style is the most intricate in the nation.
Page after page after book after book of perfectly preserved pieces; table and chair sets, unique character heads and full body puppets using the rare Hui Pi style cowhide. Four foot wide cloth folders of scenic bundles so full, it took two of us to heave the onto the couch.
In the middle of my drunken reverie, Yangfei entered that apartment and I felt like a kid caught with my hand in the cookie jar. He quickly shook my hand, laughed about something and made his way into the bedroom to change into his pajamas. He’s a practical man, so there was no need to feel shy.
We sat up for a few hours, going through just a sliver of his personal collection. All of it perfectly kept and meticulously labeled. Yangfei has been collecting for decades and just finished photographing most of his collection for an upcoming Shaanxi shadow puppet book (which I am anxiously awaiting). Beyond that, he’s one of the go-to collectors and experts in the region, having just put up a small shadow puppet exhibit at Datang Xishi’s historical museum in 2011. Everyone knows him and everyone likes him, but he doesn’t boast about any of it.
I suppose I’ve taken to Yangfei because we have similar interests, but of course it’s much more than that. To see the care he’s taken with these pieces speaks more of his love for them than the collection itself.
My photos won’t tell you the whole story: the quality of the preservation, the perfection of the Hui Pi cowhide, the mastery of the cutter, but hopefully it will give you a glimpse into some of the finer pieces this art form has produced and a little insight into the man who has worked to save them.
Thanks for reading~
One of the Hui Pi figures. You can’t see it, but this cowhide is paper thin, as strong as ever and smoother than anything I’ve seen. The creation process allows for a subtlety in paint color unseen in any other tradition. Yangfei said no one is quite sure how they made it, as the masters died out in the late Ming dynasty.
Like most collectors, Yangfei has a few sets of the ’18 Scenes of Hell’ story which features gory tales of what happens to you if you don’t get into ‘Heaven’. This new member of Hell is so scared, he’s stuck his head in his pants.