Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Humble Collector

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’.

A living room table ready for visitors: tea and sweet and savory snacks.

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.  

Close up of the Hui Pi figure.

Birdman character in Hui Pi cowhide.  Again, notice how fine the gradient of deep red is around the face.  

Yangrong points out an impeccable table and chair set.  I’ve included her hand in the picture so you can see the scale and intricacy more clearly.

Close up of another chair.  Incredible detail – notice the dragon pattern on the chair back and arm rests. 

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.  

Just a close up of the careful way in which Yangfei has preserved all of his smaller pieces: wrapped in soft elastic into a stationary pose and sewn onto tagboard with a red-lined catalogue label.

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The Festival to end all Festivals

Having never been to a UNIMA International Puppet Festival before, I had no idea what to expect.

Having never been to any sort of puppet festival in China, I really had no idea what to expect.

China was hosting its first ever UNIMA World Puppet Festival in Chengdu.  It was much of the reason I came back to China this summer.  My expectations were high, but I was also hedging bets.

The ‘information’ provided beforehand didn’t help unravel the mystery.  There was a schedule online that said things like: showtime: 10-4:30.  Hmm.  Was I to surmise that there would be a show or two sometime that day?  Hard to plan your show watching schedule with 6 and a half hour showtime windows.  There was also an ‘Indoor Theatre’ schedule and an ‘Outdoor Theatre’ schedule but nowhere was it listed that the outdoor schedule actually meant the Intangible Cultural Heritage Park which is about 15 miles west of the city.  We had to find that out by going to the museum that was supposed to have ‘free tickets’ to the first 300 customers in the day, to find out that not only did they not have tickets, but they didn’t know what festival we were talking about.  Maybe, they said, it’s the festival advertised on the poster on their ticket booth?  And, if so, it looks like it was being held at the Intangible Cultural Heritage park 15 miles west of the city.

My friend and fellow puppet enthusiast, Julie and I arrived at the ‘Outdoor Theatre’ on a bus so crammed it couldn’t take passengers for the last 10 stops.  That should have clued us in.

After I was sure I couldn’t take the claustrophobia anymore, we were expelled from the bus and onto the hot pavement by the wave of passengers behind us who also wanted off.  This must be the place.

It took us a moment to get our bearings and in those few seconds, we were engulfed by a river of puppet-going Chinese nationals.  Thousands – THOUSANDS of people were here to watch puppetry?  Yes indeedy.

Julie and I stood in line for our 20 元 (about $3.25) tickets and then jumped into another river of people flowing into the park through a few small gates.

Inside was another mass of people gathering for shows at the numerous outdoor stages.  The crowds dwarfed the puppeteers – one was lucky to catch a glimpse and even luckier to hear anything.  The ‘map’ provided for tourists was no more correct or informative than our previous information, so I was forced to forage for the shadow puppet room myself.  I reasoned that the shadow puppetry room was probably inside on a sunny day, so I headed into the main building and after asking a few doe-eyed security guards, found my way into a small carpeted theatre dedicated to shadow puppetry for the entirety of the festival.

There was chaos here, too, but the din was considerably less thronging.  We were too far off the beaten path, as usual.

On the list of opening day performers, most were Chinese and half I’d met doing fieldwork. Meeting old friends on the other side of the world is something that never fails to surprise and delight me, even when I expect it.

Most of the performances, not surprisingly, were modern shadow play, geared towards a younger, more impatient crowd – but it didn’t matter.  It was shadow puppetry and the audience was packed.

Qin Laoshi waits for his cue.  

A troupe from Haining, Zhejiang Province.

A troupe from Heilongjiang Province (north of the northeast of China) performing their version of Wusong and the Tiger.  

The Northern Sichuan Shadow Play Troupe was one of only two traditional shows at the festival.  For most of their short 10-minute performance, the troupe seemed shy and embarrassed and the audience looked polite, but unengaged.Immediately after the last note was sung, they quickly announced that they were following up with a three-minute ‘disco!’.  Modern puppets danced mindlessly to a blaring pop song.  The crowd cheered and all was forgotten.  They were a hit.  I grimaced.

This feeling is one I’d have often throughout the festival.  The positives were abundant: so many new puppet fans, some great puppet shows, a convergence of puppeteers from around the world, an opportunity for scholarship and rare comparison.  But alongside those realities, the negatives were also overwhelming: the quality was glaringly inconsistent, the audience seemed more there for the festival than the puppets and the shows were presented in a zoo-like fashion (as one of my Swiss puppeteer friends put it) for browsing and passing by – not for the show itself, .  The emphasis of the festival was on volume, spectacle and novelty and the performers knew it.

As a puppet lover, my inner argument was constant.  Is any kind of publicity good publicity?  I concluded it was and then would conclude it wasn’t, again.  I’m not sure where I ended up.

The festival certainly happened while I was deciding.  I saw three shows a day, sat in on a shadow puppet symposium and met friends new and old.  All in all, a worthy week – in all its confused glory.

Thanks for reading~

A few more pics of shadow puppet shows:

The lone non-Asian shadow puppet company, Macedonia Shadow and Clouds, performed a quiet but sweet show about two snails.

Shadow puppet scene from Shaanxi Provincial Theatre’s show Cathay: Three Tales From China (which was originally a co-production with the Ping Chong company, Stephen Kaplin of Chinese Theatre Works and The Carter Family Puppet Theatre)

The famous Tangshan Shadow Play Troupe’s large scale shadow puppetry in their rendition of Chengxiang Saves His Mother.