As my final farewell to this spring’s China trip, I decided to call on my best shadow puppet friend, Tianxiang. You may remember him as the dedicated son of a puppet cutting master in Northeastern Hebei province, I remember him as the exception to the rule. He greeted me at the small bus stop in Tangshan with the same buoyancy I have come to expect.
As we caught up with hugs and giggles, we were picked up by a stranger in a fancy car instead of hopping on the usual city bus to head to Tianxiang’s home in the near countryside. I asked him what was up.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve told the good people of Luanxian that you’ve come for a visit and they’d like to meet you”. And away we went, speeding down a spankin’ new freeway in a fancy car to the neighboring county. As usual, I had no idea what to expect.
We arrived to a small mob of expectant greeters, the first of which was the benevolent Mrs. Guo, a local journalist who has dedicated much of her spare time and energy into promoting Luanxian’s exquisite heritage of shadow puppetry. Behind her was her jolly husband, a task force of other supporters and a whole bunch of random add-ons probably hoping to partake in the inevitable welcome banquet. I had expected a quiet two-day trip with my friend and was dressed for that in my fieldwork shorts, recently repaired Keen shoes and a plain pink t-shirt. It was an embarrassing way to introduce myself to such a crowd, so I compensated with graciousness.
We chatted the lunch away and planned the day’s activities. Would I like a tour of their city? Of course. How about a trip to the site of the upcoming shadow puppet museum? You bet. Would I like to see a troupe perform? Nothing would make me happier.
And we spent the day much like that. The mob of us trolling from location to location in a caravan of small minivans checking out the newest and oldest sites in town. I can’t tell you how many times I said ‘fantastic’. I’m sure they were suspect of my honesty by noon.
But, the shadow puppet troupe really was fantastic.
A bumpy ride out to the countryside and we were met with the familiar clang of the Chinese cymbal and Erhu screeching away. We ducked under the front door into a small courtyard and there was the shadow screen set up and ready to go.
As it was daytime and the screen was designed for electric lights only, I watched the entirety of the performance from the back – which is where I prefer to be anyways. What a colorful cavalcade unfolded before us. These puppets looked just like the ones Tianxiang and his father so lovingly cut but they were dancing, fighting, alive. The pliable, thin leather makes for stunning feats of performance.
The Luanxian tradition is famous for its skilled puppeteers and its rare tradition of singing from script. Most of the troupes I’ve worked with have a few scripts for reference, but heavily rely on a mix of memory and improvisation for the final performance. The rest of the scripts I’ve seen are usually behind glass in a museum somewhere.
As I marveled at the beautiful hand scripted librettos, more were brought out and placed on a table in front of the screen. Putting a script in hand and flipping gently through the pages, I felt in the presence of something much older than myself. The feeling is akin to the sense I get when I see the old puppets performed with – that heartache I feel for a past I was never apart of is eased for the moment and I feel my place on the long continuum of human existence.
But as good as the troupe is, like most of the others still surviving around the country, they are supported entirely (and not with much) by the local government. It’s no longer a full time job, but a hobby. They perform anytime they are called upon by Mrs. Guo and her cohorts to entertain visitors or commemorate celebrations. They rarely perform for their community and they have no students. No students. The refrain of this is wearing me down.
Late that night, when Tianxiang and I were finally on the way to his house, we reveled in a surge of energy recalling the day’s events. Wasn’t the shadow puppet museum going to be a real asset to the city? Wasn’t Mrs. Guo the most genuine person? And, man, they know how to throw a banquet. It was inspiring to see such a concerted effort in such a small town. Maybe, we mused, shadow puppetry does have a chance.
In the moment, I tried my best segue to tell him what an ongoing inspiration he’s been for me, indeed even in the direst of times. He countered with an even deeper appreciation for our friendship and confessed that he’s often felt like giving up what feels like an unwinnable battle. I had never known he questioned this, too. “To know I have a student gives me a master’s sense of duty, it keeps me going.” For a heavy moment, the despair overtook my gratitude – the both of us working so hard for an end that may come anyway and feeling the embarrassing difference with what that loss means to the two of us, respectively. It hurts so deeply sometimes and I am nowhere near as intimate with this art form like Tianxiang is.
Still, as tempted as I was to wallow, I could see that buoyancy in Tianxiang’s eyes again. He is infallible. And that’s enough to keep this student afloat.
Thanks for reading~
And now, a few extra photos to give you a sense of being there…