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.
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.
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.
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~