Monthly Archives: May 2014

A for Effort

In the midst of my chaotic China welcome, I snuck in a trip to the outskirts of Tangshan and an overdue visit to the Lu family cutters. It’s been almost three years since I’ve been out east of Beijing and I was anxious to check in.

I was happy to find the Lu family unchanged in the ways that matter: still ineffably warm, earnest and thriving in their multiple modalities. Both father and mother Lu, while busy helping son Tianxiang set up his new apartment in preparation for a wife, catch me up on their latest happenings. The apartment is on the fifth floor of the third building in a large complex of newly built identical high-rises, which are no stranger to the China skyline.

The apartment building is so new, there are only a few neighbors as of yet – everyone in a different state of preparation.


In the Lu’s apartment, the electric kang (traditionally a steam-heated brick bed) is the only piece of furniture in the place so far. His father is working on the baseboards, his mother on making new buckwheat husk pillows and Tianxiang is intent on patching in the light switches. The pride of having his own place shows in Tianxiang. He lights up when he talks about how he’ll decorate the walls with his father’s shadow puppetry and display his cutting tools on a specially designed shelf. I am honored to be the apartment’s first guest and sleep like a log on the kang.

The next morning, I see that the hustle and bustle of movement and improvement within the small household is no different from the small town of Han Cheng itself. Just a 20 minute bus ride outside of Tangshan proper, Han Cheng is starting to outgrow its dirt roads and farmland feel. There’s a few fast food chains setting up shop in the first floor of the new high-rise apartment buildings and the street’s nightlife reveals a swarming population of younger folk. Tianxiang’s building complex is just one of a few that now break up the previously flat horizon of corn and millet fields.

Shortly after breakfast, Tianxiang takes me to the small village another 20 minutes further out of Tangshan, named Damengang. Here, in collaboration with a few progressive educators, Tianxiang has been developing shadow puppet curriculum with a small village school. The program has been a success from the beginning, clearly evident with a tour through the school’s exhibition room. The pieces on display are creative, careful and wonderful.

plastic headThis cutting sample is made by a student out of thin, flexible plastic – a more economic learning material than leather.

Later, I am privileged to meet the artists themselves. In the hallway, a band of students are studiously at work carving leather pieces on wax boards and painting the finished parts with watercolor.



In the music room, there is another group manipulating shadow puppets with help of a local troupe and when they see their teacher has arrived, they ready themselves for performance. We are treated to a short set of shows with students at the helm of each. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a bit seeing the young and the old working together behind the screen.

young and old

Like everything else he does, Tianxiang has created this program with the utmost care and thought. From the choice of plastic for the beginning cutters to the beautiful wax boards for the advanced students, this is no afternoon activity. A well-laid lesson plan of shadow puppet making integrated with performance practice, encouraged by both its long tradition and the pressing need for creativity — this is the kind of thing shadow puppetry needs. Who better to inherit and evolve the craft than China’s youth?

Tianxiang drops me off at his new apartment after a full day at the school. Shortly, he will head back to his parents house for the night. There isn’t much that needs to be said. He knows how much it has meant to me and I know how much it means to him. This work, this toil he offers on his days off, free nights and free hours from his day job in the city — it is something. They cycle of inspiration continues and we carry on.

the fam at their old homeThe Lus at their “old home” in western Han Cheng

Thanks for reading~

For previous stories on the Lus: 
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As The World Turns

I’m back in mainland China for a 10 week fieldwork trip, focusing on shadow puppet troupes and puppet making methods in Gansu and Yunnan. Somehow I finished the first year in my PhD program and left for China within the span of just a few days. I’ll try not to ever do that again. The mental quiet and focus that the school year has demanded has softened my fieldwork rigor for the moment. I was wholly unprepared for the deluge of stimuli and the unforgiving pace of Beijing upon arrival. But, slowly, I can feel myself steeling up again: remembering to carry toilet paper and water with me, abandoning my expectations that anything will start on time and always (always) managing to recheck my assumptions.

As usual, I’m starting my trip in Beijing. It’s the perfect place to recover from jetlag, get my belly used to the oil and spice and get my brain firing in Mandarin again. It is also home to a growing number of shadow puppet friends from all walks of life. Beijing, from the beginning, has never been a place I thought I would invest much time into, as most of what remains here are modern shadow puppet troupes. Still, it grows increasingly undeniable that China’s capitol is the center of many things in this country, which continues to draw artists and innovators, including shadow lovers. Within just a few calls to some of my pals, I see that I’ve lucked out with my timing: so and so has an exhibition, so and so has a new theatre and so and so is opening their new shadow puppet collaboration tonight. Never a dull moment in China, ever.

Hanfeizi, the brother and sister company I first profiled in 2011, is currently busy with a few projects. Most notably, they are participating in an exhibition of handicrafts for the ART BEIJING expo happening. I attended on press day, a day before the exhibition officially opened, and was impressed to see a large showing of journalists, supporters and general enthusiasts. The shadow puppet corner takes up one of the 4 main walls and boasts a small, but classy collection of Dongbei style shadow puppets.

HFZ 2Hanxing, left, beside two of the event organizers, his father and mother.

Liu Laoshi and the Longzaitian Troupe are also doing well. This troupe of little people remain some of the best trained and most enthusiastic students of shadow puppetry in the country. The manager, curious about my continued returns (this being my third in 3 years), decided I must be serious about shadow puppetry and welcomed me in with decided earnest. He explained that while the troupe’s reputation was growing steadily, with three branches in Beijing and 3 outposts in other provinces, the financial situation was still tight. The government does assist the troupe with things such as rehearsal and performance space, but does little else. They are still mostly subsisting on commissioned collaborations, ticket prices and some private funding. Because I had toted my friend Serge along as well, we got an extra special private showing of their prized blacklight show. So much neon! 


Over at the Shichahai Shadow Puppet Themed Hotel, which is one of the nicest boutique hutong hotels around, my friend’s Larry Reed and Maomao have just teamed up together to launch a new shadow puppet performance of The Butterfly Lovers for the hotel’s audience. It was exciting to attend their opening night and I was impressed with the amount of work they managed to accomplish in one short week of rehearsal. It’s a great story to translate into shadow and will add to their growing repertoire of shows.

SCH HotelReading for the audience. Isn’t that screen gorgeous?

Buttefly lovers

As the luck of my timing continued, last year’s hutong shadow tour team is all in Beijing at the same time: Julie, my great friend who works with Miao textiles and shadows and Serge, my friend from Holland who works in contemporary painting and performance. Recently, I connected Serge to my friend Tianxiang to help him make leather puppets for some upcoming experimental animated films. Together, Julie, Serge and I did what we like to do. We made some shadow friends, took them to the hutong alleyways and lit up the night.

Hutong Perf

Hutong Perf 1

All in all, a raucous and unrelenting beginning to my trip. I have no false expectations that this good timing will continue, only grateful to have been apart of the convergence. Can’t wait to see what the next two months has in store.

Thanks for reading~