During my early summer trip to China, I made the necessary stop in Xi’an. And, spent a day busing into the countryside to visit the small town of Hua Xian. It’s where I first met traditional Chinese shadow puppetry in 2008 and it’s still the heart of my work. I go to check in, to relax and to feel at home away from home. This time was no different.
After two weeks out of my element in southern China and then at the overwhelming UNIMA festival in Chengdu, I was only to happy to land outside the small town of Hua Xian in the Shaanxi countryside with my friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Anna, in tow.
We found my cutting teacher, Wang Yan, at home – resting from a recent medical procedure (nothing serious, thank goodness) and hosting her new sister-in-law’s family for lunch.
We joined in the fun and after eating ourselves silly, took a stroll up the familiar path past the duck farm to the base of the mountain. As we walked, both Anna and I got an education in Chinese farming, crops, planting and persimmon trees!
We then made our way back to the old school and met Wei and the troupe. As luck would have it, they were just about to perform for a group of businessmen who had just arrived at the school’s museum.
I prepared to film and enlisted Anna on my point and shoot camera. The businessmen arrived but instead of sitting down for the show, they wanted to know what two foreigners were doing in the countryside at a small Chinese shadow puppetry museum. Well, I explained it as best I could with Master Wei pitching in every now and then and before I knew it I had been volunteered to perform a small ditty.
Throughout 2011, I learned from experience that there’s a point in fieldwork where you have to go with the flow, whatever terrifying direction it might be flowing because to go against it would create much more havoc than doing the unthinkable. So, with instant armpit sweat and fire in my cheeks, I acquiesced and stepped behind the screen.
They shoved a familiar heroine puppet in my hands.
For five minutes, I embarrassingly ran through my short vocabulary of traditional shadow puppet moves: walking, turning, sitting, clapping, kneeling and crying (cause the heroines are always crying) to the troupe’s fantastic musical accompaniment.
And while I clumsily moved that puppet, still blushing, I was reminded that the best way to do anything is just that: to do it. I’m always waiting to be great at something before attempting it, but that’s laughably impossible and a perfect recipe for failure. Instead, just as my cutting teachers had taught me last year, I took a deep breath, slowed down and did my best to fail with pride.
Happily, that failing is never as painful as we think it will be.
Click here to see a short video of my efforts.
Thanks for reading and watching ~