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