Monthly Archives: July 2014

North by Northwest – Part 2

Continued from North by Northwest – Part 1

My classes were to start the next morning at nine am. In classic Annie-fashion, I was ready around 8:45 and had to pace around the back parking lot in order to avoid being early. I walked in slow motion from my sixth floor hotel room to the workshops just out back. I took the steps to the second floor with patience. In a glance, I saw Master Gao’s door was open and as I peaked through the cloth flap, I saw him studiously working at his desk. He had already prepared the side desk for me, with a cutting mat, one blade and a comfortable chair.

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We exchanged quick pleasantries and got to work. After a quick discussion of my previous work in the Shaanxi and Tangshan style of cutting leather, a small scrap of hide was placed in front of me and along with a selection of head patterns. I chose a simple woman’s head to start my practice.

In a moment, the setting felt so familiar that my body unconsciously fell into work mode. I checked the hide for moisture, picked up my needle tool, aligned my hide over the pattern and began to trace with concerted concentration. They say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. And even though the Gansu cutting method is wholly different from the others, my understanding of the way in which I was going to learn this was the same. I went slow, I was patient and I was persistent.

Master Gao’s skills are humbly presented, even though he’s registered as a national level cultural artist. His pieces have an effortless, yet unforgiving look to them: unapologetically beautiful.

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legs

And, he’s a natural teacher. He offers up appropriate suggestions with a soft voice and presents useful comparisons to other cutting methods. He continues to cut as I study, checking in on me every 20 minutes or pausing for a direct question.

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This set up may seem normal to the uninitiated, but it is actually unusual in the best sense. The traditional Chinese shadow puppetry apprentice system has changed greatly over the last century. In the early part of the 1900s, as Chinese shadow puppetry was just beginning its end, the apprentice system was still a one-on-one relationship. The emphasis on proximity and prolonged study was central to the transmission. Nowadays, ever since Chinese shadow puppetry picked back up in the late 1970s after decades of repression, the apprentice system looks more like a technical school than anything else. There is often a division of labor (i.e. cutters, painters, designers) and there is an understanding that the goal is commercial, not artistic. The teaching style is more dogmatic in its approach, rather than a cyclical feedback cycle between Master and Apprentice.

In the course of my study in Gansu, I took advantage of my Master’s constant practice and my proximity and tried hard not to take it all for granted. I quickly developed a happy discourse between my own work and observed the master when I had nagging questions. So much can be understood if you know how to look. And though I’m nowhere near mastering this method of puppet making, I feel confident I’ve embodied the basic enough to continue studying on my own.

IMG_7646My progress with the simple woman’s head design; versions 1 through 5.

We ended the week with increased conversations about Master Gao’s biography, his family and the future of traditional shadow puppetry. All of Master Gao’s children have gone onto college, which is a great accomplishment, and all three of them are pursuing artistic fields. He beams with pride as he shows me his daughter’s Chinese style paintings. And although they all live or attend school in different provinces, you get a sense that they’re close. He knows there’s no work for them in Huanxian.

In regards to the future of Chinese shadow puppetry, he has no more confidence than I do. And yet, he also doesn’t seem to have the worry or regret that one might expect. There is a steadiness about him that assuages my worries for a time. Perhaps this perspective is developed from the honest and tangible work of a craftsman, the practicality of a crafter. I feel it too: the solidity of the tools and the ability to manipulate the leather in my hands gives me a growing sense of confidence in all things.

The day before my study is over, I can feel the goodbye already begin to weigh heavily on me. These chances to study grow more and more exceptional. These chances to study with a gifted cutter and teacher? You get the idea.

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You’ll find me back in Northwest as soon as I can find my way back to China.

Thanks for reading~

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North by Northwest – Part 1

After a short breather in Xi’an, I braved the bus towards the northwestern corner of China’s mainland to the small city of Huanxian in Gansu province. I have been to Huanxian once before, for just a few days in 2011, to attend the National Shadow Puppet Conference held every four years. My memory of the conference is fuzzy as we were shuffled here and there to watch this and that for a full three days. Indelibly, however, the Huanxian performers and cutters are still clear in my mind. They seemed out of place at the conference, even though it was their home turf: while the other troupes handled press with ease and utilized the proscenium stage, the Huanxian artists were awkward in the outsider gaze and unaccustomed to performing indoors. I fell in love with them instantly and knew I had to visit them again, in the sobriety of the off-season.

The bus dropped me off with little aplomb. With one mainstreet, Huanxian is just over one mile long. Its side streets stretch another mile or so wide, but beyond that, the mountains cut off expansion on either side.

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They tower over the valley and shelter it from the rest of the world. The wind had swirled the dry, loose soil into a layer of hazy fog that I would have assumed was pollution had I not known Huanxian didn’t have any industry to speak of.

The Shadow Puppet themed hotel was just a three-block walk from the town’s central square and 2 blocks from the bus terminal. I checked in at the front desk, overseen by a few shadow puppet warriors hung ominously high on the walls. Once settled in the tacky, but decent room on the sixth floor, I checked in with my contacts to announce my arrival. Huanxian’s main puppet making company is located on the second floor of the hotel and the cutting workshop just out back. I guess in a town this small, convenience of this sort shouldn’t be a surprise.

Li Yaping, a former provincial level puppet maker, met me in the Longying Shadow Puppet company’s offices. Long years of leaning over a cutting table have relegated her to a manager’s position. She gave us a tour of the offices, empty like a ghost town, and the exhibition room, which boasts a host of lovely pieces and innovative designs. When I asked how busy the company was these days, she replied simply, “not busy.” After discussing the particulars, we agreed that tomorrow I could head out back and look for my cutting teacher myself.

The next morning at nine sharp, I headed out back with my serious researcher pants on, my backpack full of notebooks, freshly charged batteries and my mind set on my goal. Mornings like these have begun to feel familiar. My lack of appetite betrays my outwardly cool composure: I care. I care deeply how the next hour will transpire. A mixture of dread and excitement lays thick in my belly because I never know what I’m going to find. The perfect situation could present itself; an amiable master, a nice workshop, a great study routine and a reasonable price. Or, I could find disgruntled employees, a depressing workshop and an unaffordable situation.

After a thorough tour of the workshop building, I find no one is there. My heart and stomach flutter for a second, but I quickly decide to take the hunt back to the main office. I find the second floor peopled with just one young woman who eagerly agrees to help in my hunt. We head behind the workshop building to the squat brick buildings that serve as residents for some of the employees. We ask a few questions, stand around awkwardly and then, Gao Qingwang rounded the corner. From a distance you could see the deep smile lines creased in his weathered face. He walked with a relaxed gait: open and curious. My young guide jumped when she saw him and explained who I was. In moments, we had agreed to head back to his workshop and talk a bit.

Ten minutes later, the three of us are sitting comfortably in Gao Qingwang’s beautiful studio: a small 10×15 ft room with a window towards the mountains. A bed is in one corner for midday rests and he has shadow puppet trunks stacked against the other wall. Knick knacks and souvenirs are everywhere.

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Without ceremony, Master Gao retrieved a piece of leather he was working on, his tools and sat down to work. Relative to other masters, Gao is talkative and can explain his work in motion. He is open to questions, listens thoughtfully and works steadily.

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After a buoyant half hour of observation and conversation, we agreed to study every morning for my remaining time in Huanxian.

These are the mornings I dream of. The relief the encounter brought summoned my suppressed hunger and I headed off to an early lunch of hand-pulled noodles and pickled vegetables.

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Part Two of my work in Gansu to follow…

Thanks for reading~