I last visited the small city of Luanzhou in 2012 (previously known as Luanxian). I was taken by Tianxiang Lu who graciously introduced me to Mrs. Guo, a longtime fan of his family’s shadow puppets, and a host of other incredible Luanzhou shadow puppet artists. It was a bonus at the time. I hadn’t done any of my own legwork to prepare for the trip – I just showed up and was given a beautifully curated tour of all that Luanzhou shadow puppetry had to offer along with a few formal meals. This kind of ceremony is usually only reserved for those who hold some official standing, public office, purse-strings of some kind, etc. My status as a freelance artist/novice fieldworker rarely gets any fanfare – which is usually to my benefit – but Luanzhou city clearly had an abundance of enthusiasm, resources and overt desire to push their local brand of shadow puppetry.
Like so many of the small fourth and fifth tiered cities in China, Luanzhou is constantly competing for government funding and recognition. They vie for the ‘if you build it, they will come’ money, raising new apartment complexes, ‘old’ towns, river walks and anything else they think can entice the next wave of rural immigrants. Much of the time, these small cities’ best bet to prove themselves distinct from the other hundreds of small cities is to brand themselves culturally. Much folk art is preserved this way. In my travels, the three best regions for shadow puppetry continuance in the country is in the three regions where a small town has chosen to place their shadow puppetry as the keystone in their cultural portfolio: Bazhong, Sichuan Province, Huanxian, Gansu Province and Luanzhou, Hebei Province.
Of course, this has downsides too. I’m sure the artists practicing the other art forms that weren’t chosen aren’t too happy about the singular focus. But, in the game of safeguarding and preservation triage, some things have to die so that something else can live.
Luanzhou has been aggressively expanding their city and utilizing shadow puppetry as a star player since about 2010. When we were there in 2012, the city had already built an out-of-scale mainstreet, which dwarfed the modest housing on either side. Their new river walk was approximately the width of Shanghai’s bund, but laid empty much of the time. The city had even just erected a monstrous new ‘old town’, which was aimed at attracting local tourism. And even though the ‘old town’ was then only populated by eager locals, capitalizing on the early promise of new commerce, there seemed an optimistic energy in the city’s future. For me, the most exciting news was the plan to create a shadow puppet museum. I would have to return in 2016.
I went back just a few weeks ago, again accompanied by Tianxiang, to check in on Luanzhou and their museum. We took the new high-speed train from Tangshan and were there in 17 minutes, instead of the usual hour. Mrs. Guo greeted us with a car and a banquet. Then, we went to the museum.
It’s gorgeous. It’s huge and thorough and presented better than any other shadow puppet museum exhibit I’ve seen in China. There are rows and rows of beautiful pieces, videos with headphones that accompany many of the 2D dioramas and even a 3D diorama section that features a realistic wax-figured shadow puppeteer. At the end of the exhibit, you can even try the puppets for yourself!
Only trouble is, no one is ever there. The museum is, ostensibly, closed. All the time. No funding to keep it staffed and probably no reason to. Luanzhou’s population hasn’t take off like the city thought it would. With a small local citizenry and no tourists, who would come to this beautiful museum more than once? Sure, if you have a good reason, you can call the people who know the right people and they’ll open it for you. But otherwise, the place remains a secret garden – a treasure unseen.
Rest assured, I snapped a picture of every single thing in that collection. No telling when the officials will get wind of this and turn it into something I’ll love a lot less.
Thanks for reading~
Some extra pictures of the two, 20-foot-long leather ‘shadow puppet style’ mural