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~


4 responses to “Don’t Kill the Messenger

  1. ron rollins

    REally good entry. More than a commentary on shadow puppets. Soo, where does the collector with money go to buy an original now? There are always people who want the real gucci bag and not a cheap knock off. Is there a shop somewhere? There should be.

    On that vein, does a video exist of a master making a puppet from beginning to end….and into performance? For archival purposes…and maybe even educational and entertaining/advertising purposes. I can see this video contrasted with the machine cut process…If people could only see and understand the difference.


    Date: Wed, 25 Jun 2014 04:58:23 +0000 To:

  2. Although shopkeepers may be “praying upon the ignorance of the consumer to make a profit”, I think most of the fault lies with the tourists who want something simple, easy and cheap to take home as a souvenir. When they see two items – one for 20rmb and another for 200rmb – the ability to discriminate between souvenir and culturally significant artwork is lost on them. Shopkeepers are simply evolving according to the demand.
    But thanks to you and your puppet friends, the link to this history continues.
    My shadow puppet (handmade) was purchased on 回民街 in 2005.

  3. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for your thoughts. Through my research, it appears most tourists or potential buyers would absolutely pay more for a handmade object – they are just not equipped with the knowledge to know which is which. Often, they end up paying 200 RMB for a machine-made object, not knowing the difference. Although tourists wanting a cheaper puppet option certainly influenced this change, it’s immediate implementation is motivated by the shopkeepers ability to make a much larger profit. i.e.: buy machine-made puppets at stock for 5-10RMB per piece and sell them upwards of 200RMB each. That’s a much better profit than buying handmades for 60-120RMB and selling them for 200RMB each. So glad you bought your puppet piece before the change! Best, Annie

  4. Pingback: Weekly Puppetry News Round-Up: Great Big Summer Edition | PuppetVision

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