Monthly Archives: June 2014

Don’t Kill the Messenger

On my way west to Gansu Province from Beijing, I had to pass through my old stomping grounds of Shaanxi Province. Xi’an city is the only logical throughway before heading north by bus to the small desert city of Huanxian. My intention was just to check in on everyone, see how they were doing and be on my merry way. I had not expected to find things so wholly changed.

I had heard rumblings prior to my arrival about the Yutian Wenhua company and knew the Xi’an branch had closed down. I was worried about where my puppet making friends had scattered. When I asked my good friend, puppet maker Wangyan, what she’d be up to when I swung into town, she said “just getting back from doing a shadow puppet performance in Beijing”. I was overjoyed at first, but my relief was short lived.

Save just a few puppet cutters from the old Yutian Wenhua cultural commodity company, and they are the best of the best, the rest are currently out of work. One is delivering sodas, another working in a hotel and Wangyan tried a stint at the local mall. No wonder she jumped at a random opportunity to join a one-time-only shadow puppet performance to welcome the Turkmenistan leader to Beijing, even if she finds herself out of work again on her return to Xi’an.

One trip to the famed Muslim Quarter tourist street in Xi’an and everything is explained. The few shadow shops that were there in 2011 were filled with both machine and hand-cut shadow puppets. I had a growing worry then that most of the vendors were passing off machine-made as hand-cut and making a mint, but had still assumed the industry would progress slowly. Having spent so much time researching in China, I should have known better.

Now, the number of shadow puppet shops in the Muslim Quarter has tripled. And, the handcut shadow puppets? Gone. All of them. Not a single hand cut sample in the shops I visited.



5This is just a sampling of the shadow puppet stores along the Muslim Quarter.

I’ll admit, the grump took a hold of me around the fourth shop or so and I gave an impolite scolding to a shopkeeper; not because they are only selling machine-made puppets but because they are still praying upon the ignorance of the consumer to make a profit.

This domination of the machine-made puppet hawked as the ‘real thing’ and the inability for the general public to tell the difference has put my good friends out of work. These incredible, beautiful artists have laid their hard won talents to rest. Worst of all, they make more working in malls and delivering sodas then they ever did cutting puppets. The world confuses  me at times like these. How have humans come to place more monetary value in a bottle of Coke than in an inherited intangible cultural folk art form?

Certainly, this change is happening swiftly everywhere if it hasn’t already. Worst of all, this market change has cemented the demise of Shaanxi’s famed shadow puppet cutting apprenticeship system.

There are just a handful of cutters now working in Xi’an and only a few more in shadow puppetry’s original hot bed of Huaxian. I can’t help but wonder just how long they can all hang on. And, I can’t help wishing for a miracle.

Thanks for reading~

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Project

Nearly every time I talk with a shadow puppet practitioner in China about inheritance, future or preservation, “非物质文化遗产”or “The Intangible Cultural Heritage Project” is the next subject that follows. It’s a bit of an urban legend everywhere you go; everyone has heard of it, fewer know about the actual particulars of the project, and most rare are those who have actually received the benefits of its inception. But, as mixed as the tangible results may be, it is clear that the project’s reputation and shadow puppetry’s recent inscription onto the coveted list, has brought a sea change of pride and validation to the working artists.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Project (ICH) was started in 2003 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in an attempt to staunch the hemorrhaging of the world’s cultural practices before it was too late. So far, it’s registered nearly 300 intangible cultural heritage practices in dozens countries. Chinese shadow puppetry was inscribed on a national level just around the time I was ending my Fulbright trip in 2011. It was an instant boost in moral, a charge to the heart of shadow puppetry. It made it seem as though things were picking up, that help wasn’t too far away. However, talking with artists in 2012 and 2013, it was clear the realities hadn’t met with their expectations. But, what were the realities and why were those expectations universal? I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone. The larger truth slowly appeared as anything but concrete; anytime you mix politics with art, it gets complicated.

I finally sat down last summer to read through the available material UNESCO provides on the subject. The slickly designed pdf’s on Register of Best Safeguarding Practices and Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention were beautiful and inspiring, but did little to inform me of the day-to-day workings of the project. I was confused and long days of deep googling did nothing to clarify things. So, I decided to go to the source.

During my stop over in Beijing in early May, I popped into the UNESCO office for a meeting. My pestering had finally got the best of them and a gracious project manager, named Julien Glenat, agreed to give me an hour of his time. And, as suspected, much was cleared up in that little hour.

Julien clarified that UNESCO merely writes a convention, loosely, and leaves all of the regional implementation up to the local Ministries of Culture (MIC). In this way they are incredibly hands off. No accountability, no policing, just suggestions. Julien stated that “each country is quite free to implement it as they wish. More importantly, as the local community wishes. I think the central notion of the convention is the communities – what they consider as intangible heritage.” This distinction is important. UNESCO and the ICH project keeps the language intentionally vague in order to avoid exclusion of the world’s great diversity of ICH practices. Sometimes, though, the vagueness of language leaves governments confused, wishing instead for an ICH ‘to do’ list.

I asked specifically about China, whether this vagueness in language had stunted their efficiency in anyway. I was happy to hear that China has stepped up in the Eastern region as a role model and have been progressive in their work with ICH. They’ve even established an independent ICH office in nearly every province to assist with more efficacious planning. (Again, UNESCO’s offices only guide and assist; China’s Ministry of Culture does all of the actual implementation and policy making.) The Ministry of Culture is even working to establish an annual ICH conference with most of the bureau’s in attendance: science, education, business, etc in order to spread awareness and develop collaborations.

We talked for a while longer about the efficacy and possible corruption in the local offices, the awkward collaboration between politics and artists, and my worries about tacit learning and embodied transmission from master to apprentice (which is not mentioned in their ‘best practices for safeguarding’). After all my questions were answered, I asked Julien what his primary concerns for the immediate future were as he is there, everyday, witnessing the swift and irrevocable changes. He says he is most concerned with China’s tendency to direct their ICH woes to the tourism industry with a lot of speed and little reflection. I echo the same worry with Chinese shadow puppetry. Too often, when this shift is done in haste, it tends to only benefit the businesspeople, not the artists, and leaves the soul of the practice somewhere in limbo.

We bemoaned our shared feelings of inadequacy at times – is what we’re doing really effective? Does anyone care? Are we making things worse? But, Julient, who no doubt has thought about this more than I have, declared that there was “no small effort for culture.” And, I sincerely hope he’s right.

Thanks for reading~

*Thanks to Julien Glenat and the UNESCO Beijing office for their time.