Category Archives: Video

CBC Videos on Chinese Shadow Puppetry

This blog covers many of the endeavors I pursue in order to get closer to Chinese shadow puppetry, while also serving one of my main missions: to disseminate information about this incredible art form to the general public. Every once in a while I get lucky and someone else helps me do the work of spreading the word. This time, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Arts produced a short segment on both my work in Chinese shadow puppetry and a mini how-to video on the craft. Both videos were directed by Ashely Duong and were a pleasure to work on. Hoping that these clips and articles help spread the word much further than this little blog or a PhD thesis could.

Thanks, CBC!


Original Article Links:

Meet the artist who’s trying to save a disappearing art with her bare hands:

How to become a Chinese shadow puppet master:


Direct Vimeo Video Links:

Meet the artist who’s trying to save a disappearing art with her bare hands:

How to become a Chinese shadow puppet master: 


~Thanks for reading & watching!!

Head Block

It’s been awhile since I started my initial search of all things Chinese shadow puppetry.  In 2008, I stumbled onto the subject and wanted to know more, much more.  And, like most people do when they want to know more, I went to the internet first.

After some intense google-ing, I found almost nothing, save some short introductory paragraphs and some low-resolution photos.  I momentarily assumed that this lack of information on the web was somehow a direct indication of the art form’s activity in China.  I couldn’t tell for sure, so I kept looking.

I finally found my first contact with an actual shadow puppet troupe in China through a string of connections (one of whom is now my fiancé) and even with my conversational Chinese abilities, it was another battle of logistics to get a hold of them, tell them what I wanted, raise the money to go there and actually find them in the countryside of China.

Throughout the interim five years and extended fieldwork, I have repeatedly found that this chasm between curiosity and concrete information stops most people from following through on that initial interest and I know from my fieldwork that Chinese shadow puppetry needs awareness and curiosity at this very moment more than ever.

Which brings me to my happy news:  after years as an idea, generous funding from The Walter and Mary Warpeha Family, The Chinese Heritage Foundation and the US-China Peoples Friendship Association of Minnesota and a good deal of time sitting in front a my computer – I bring you…

The first ever comprehensive Chinese shadow puppet website in English!

It is my great, if idealistic hope, that this website can be the conduit between all that curiosity and concrete information.  It is structured to grow and expand over the coming years and will evolve to fit the growing needs of those who use it.

Please, please, please share this website with reckless abandon.  Throw the Do-It-Yourself section to teachers and your children/cousins/nieces/nephews, use the handmade vs. machine made section when you go to China and want to buy shadow puppets, use the aesthetics section for all your visual inspirations, check in with the blog (which will be overlap with this one a bit, but be more directed towards events/happenings) and most of all, meet the artists that are working so tirelessly to keep the art form alive.  (If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve met them already!)

As always, I solicit your feedback in hopes of improving it wherever possible.

Thanks you, as always, for reading and may the shadows be with you!

Bazhong Compilation Video

While I haven’t had much time to post, I’ve had a bit of time to put this short (super short 3 1/2 minute edit) Bazhong Compilation together of the performance I saw last year in Sichuan Province.

My original post on that trip is here.  While I still think the video pales in comparison to the live performance, it’s a great way to get a taste for the joy that is a Chinese Shadow Play.

This is a rare sunlit show – making it easier to see what’s going on behind the scenes.  Enjoy!

Click HERE for the video link.

~Thanks for reading and watching

It Takes An Army

Shandong province has a unique shadow puppet history. It is said to be a direct descendant of the Beijing/Hebei Province shadow form, although you’d never think so to look at it. It is the only style in all of China to have evolved into a one-man show tradition.

I arrived in Tai’an early off an overnight train from Beijing and after checking into my hotel, was swiftly carried off by Weiguo, the son of Tai’an’s only remaining puppet master, Fan Zhang An. Weiguo and I met at the shadow puppet conference in Gansu and we got along so well, I would have visited them regardless of the puppetry.

In 2009, the family started their own ‘cultural’ teahouse, located on a large shopping street just south of Tai’an’s famous Dai Temple. Their bread and butter is largely from the tourists who rotate in throughout the more temperate months to climb the famous Mount Taishan, which is located just outside the city. For now, the below freezing temperatures meant it was just me and them. I didn’t mind the intimacy.

More than any other artist that I’ve met this year, Master Fan is what I would call a true showman. Every single thing he does is with a glowing, jolly graciousness that keeps you smiling – even if you’re not sure what for. His story begins at the young age of 8.

Master Fan was born into a poor family, right in Tai’an city. He can’t recall exactly how he knew he wanted to see a shadow puppet show, but he saved for a year to earn the 5 cent ticket price. At the age of eight, he saw his first show. In a moment, he was hooked for life. For the next two years, he spent his nights waiting by the theatre’s back door or climbing over its wall for any and all chances to lay eyes on those puppets. By the age of 10, he could stand the distance no longer. He gave up his schooling to become a shadow puppet apprentice, despite the prolonged protests from his family.

His apprenticeship was taxing. Out of 8 students, he’s the only one who made it. And, he is the only one to continue the rare one-man shadow tradition.

As the story goes, when shadow puppetry came to Tai’an 600 years ago, it was still largely a tourist town: people have been coming to visit the best of China’s five sacred mountains for over 3000 years. There was an Inn who used shadow puppetry as entertainment to draw the business in. But when times got tough, they had to cut costs somehow. That somehow was entertainment. Slowly, the troupe of 7 or 8 became one.

Fan mastered this performance style by the age of 17.

He performed for a few years, married his wife whom he met at the local theatre, and was conscripted into the Communist army at 21 years of age. For five years, he served in the army but never stopped performing. He created small shows for his fellow soldiers all the while.

At the age of 26, he moved back to Tai’an permanently, but kept on as a government employee. Even now, Weiguo tells me that he’s a particular favorite for the local police and traffic officials. And he never stopped learning. He’s currently one of the last living performers of two types of Shandong ‘clappertalk’, a sort of talk-song accompanied with his own rhythmic scoring.

Click here for a short video of Master Fan and his wife rehearsing for their new number.

And even though Master Fan is the star, it takes an army to keep the one-man show going.

Weiguo ostensibly runs the teahouse, which employs seven full time performers, writers, designers and servers. His sister is there as well as a few new graduates from local art programs. Master Fan’s wife is an accomplished singer and Yangding player (a horizontal-like picking harp) and the two form an amazing performance duo.

The group is tight. They eat together, celebrate birthdays together (which I was also in on – my first China KTV Karaoke experience), and chat the day away while they work. I loved spending time with them.

Master Fan’s Home Puppet Making Workshop

Painting puppets

Mr and Mrs Fan practice a new number in the living room

Then we ate lunch

Shadow puppet workshops in the local classrooms.  @ 75 students per class.

I love her concentration

Fan Weiguo introduces the nighttime teahouse performance

My favorite portion of the performance; the traditional show.  Funny and acrobatic.

And it’s made me think long and hard about who, what and how these last remaining shadow masters are passing down their rare gifts. It’s hard to make blanket conclusions, as the circumstances are so varied throughout the country – but one thing is very clear. Those artists who were lucky enough to choose this profession are still doing it with a rare passion. And of those who were lucky enough to have offspring who either loved or felt compelled to get involved on their behalf are fairing the best.

I often forget that it can be a burden or even a curse to be born as a shadow puppet master’s only son (only men were allowed to practice until after the revolution). In my mind, it’s a bit of a romantic fantasy; imagine my only purpose in life is to become an amazing puppet cutter or performer! But it remains rosy because I don’t have to step beyond the movie montage playing in my mind. Suppose the inheritor had always secretly desired to be an accountant or an academic? A butcher or farmer? A stay-at-home Dad? Or all they wanted was a quiet room and no one to bother them? With America’s faded tradition of inheriting a profession, I have little understanding of what that feels like.

Some of the Masters who inherited the form do carry on the work with verve. Duty can also be an intense creator of passion and motivation in its own right. But many of the Master’s I’ve met, who have inherited this tradition, carry it on with heavy sigh. At this point in their life, they can’t switch carriers or change their skill set – so they’re doing the best they can. And these are the shadow masters who have ‘made’ it. There are probably hundreds still living that didn’t and have been absorbed back into the countryside fabric as swiftly as they appeared.

Hearing stories and meeting artists of both persuasions throughout the year, I’ve noticed the trend. Perhaps this passion is one of the key ingredients in artistic-Darwinism. Luck and passion. Only the most passionate will survive. For whatever their reasons, they will do anything to keep it going. I am inspired by this kind of stubbornness.

In Master Fan’s case, his passion and drive have inspired all of those around him. His family and son carry it on with love and duty and the younger employees have been caught by the bug. I can’t wait to see where they take it, all of them.

Thanks for reading~

To Cut A Gansu Puppet

On my most recent trip to Gansu for the shadow puppet conference, I had the pleasure of sitting down with a few cutters to finally see for myself how they cut a shadow puppet.

Many shadow puppet artists from other provinces consider this technique the furthest from the original.  While Gansu’s shadow puppetry aesthetic is a direct descendant from Shaanxi province, they are the only method to pull the knife through the leather instead of pushing it.  While the pulling technique allows you to cut multiple layers at one time and use only one knife, the designs are somewhat compromised by the loss of control.  Again, it indicates that the newer cutting styles favor ease in cutting over maximum control.  Still, I was entirely impressed with their cutting capabilities using only one knife!

Tools & Materials

  • Your design
  • A thick piece of rubber or linoleum to be used as a cutting mat
  • Translucent leather, no thicker than .6mm
  • One hand blade, similar to the size of an exacto knife
  • A set of punches (6-10) of varying sizes
  • Needle tool
  • A small hammer
  • A wooden cutting board
  • A rough sharpening stone
  • A finishing sharpening stone
  • Bottle of water for sharpening knives

The makers begin by choosing their design and cutting 2-3 pieces of leather about 1” wider than the finished design.  Trace your design on one of the cut pieces as it’s tacked flat over their printed design.  The pieces of cowhide are then stapled together in order to cut 3 copies at a time.

Just like in Shaanxi (Huazhou) cutting styles, the punched areas in the design are done first, inner designs second and the outline last.  However, similar to Hebei style cutting, the cowhide is cut dry – eliminating the arduous process of perfectly moistening the leather before cutting.  They’ve also adapted all their designs to be cut with one angled blade, cutting down the upkeep of over 10 blades in a Shaanxi set.

And just like that, you’re ready to cut.

<These cutters are all right handed, flip this if you’re a lefty.>

See a short video of Gao cutting here.

With a small hand blade in your right hand, sharp sides faced down – place the tip of your knife into your initial cut.  After your blade has cut through to the mat, pull it along the line of your design.  Use the board to make sure you’ve cut through the leather completely and through to meet the other cuts.  Some cutters brace their right elbow on the cutting table as they cut towards themselves.

With flatter and longer cuts, you can simply pull the blade towards you.  With more curved and circular cuts, your left hand must help push the cowhide counterclockwise.

While the cutting methods seem rudimentary compared to Shaanxi style, the level of detail one can obtain is quite impressive.  They have nearly identical puppets to Shaanxi style and from a distance you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  Up close, however, the cuts have a rougher quality and the level of precision and complexity impossible to compare.

After she learned I was studying Shaanxi style cutting methods with Wang Tianwen, Gansu cutter Li Ya Ping sheepishly remarked that Gansu puppets weren’t cut as well as Shaanxi puppets.  From a technical standpoint that’s true, but each style really does carry it’s own incredible aesthetic and none too easy to compare.   Gansu has done a beautiful job creating some more modern representations of their farmer culture and their color choices exquisite.   In my diplomatic way, I said as much.

I’ll hopefully find time to get back to Gansu and sit with the cutters for a few more days.

Thanks for reading~

PS: many new links added to the Links page after the Huan Xian conference (most are in Chinese).

Shadow Play Video Links

My anticipated lack of internet connectivity in the coming weeks has me putting all my blog-ducks in a row.  Check out my updated my Itinerary and Links pages.

After talking with those who attended my shadow puppetry talk at the China Culture Center in Beijing, I realized I haven’t linked you all to the performances themselves.  Gasp!  Sometimes my zeal for detail leaves me blind to the bigger picture.  And while video is a poor, poor substitute for the real-live show – it’s far better than nothing.

Check my links page for additional online video links and a place to purchase a great documentary by my friends Frank and Antoinet from CHIME about the traditional troupe in Huanxian, Gansu.

Tangshan Video Performance:

Shaanxi Live Performance: – focus on musicians.

Bazhong Live Performance:


The Huaxian Traditional Troupe performing at Yutian in Xi’an, April 2011

To Cut A Puppet : Hebei Style

After my trip to Tangshan, to work with the Lu family cutters, I’ve had a chance to begin practicing these new cutting techniques on my own.  I’m in a beautiful Hutong sublet for the summer in Beijing, with the perfect work station set up on the porch.  The morning light beckons me to practice.  The Lu’s equipped me with a wax board, knives, design tools and cowhide and I’ve outfitted the rest myself.

In April, I showed you how to cut a puppet in the traditional Shaanxi style (also known as Huazhou style – most dominant around the northern central region of China).  Huazhou style is the oldest cutting method by a few hundred years, so I consider this the main form and others, adaptations thereof.   Hebei style in the northeastern region, is, estimated to have originated around 600 years ago.

The Hebei cutting technique is, by far, an easier entre into Chinese puppet cutting methods.  It uses fewer tools, fewer steps and a safer, simpler cutting position.  The quality of the cut and the ability for intricacy is lessened slightly, but for the non-expert it’s similar enough.

Tools & Materials

From L to R: Finishing stone, rough stone, waxboard, nail clippers, set of three blades, needle tool, small pins, leather template for flower motif

  • Your design on paper
  • Small sewing pins @ 1/2” Long (cut the tips off with a wire cutter)
  • Waxboard (wood frame, beeswax and ash or powdered incense)
  • Cowhide (up to four layers at a time depending on thickness)
  • A set of at hand blades (3-7) with a handle as long at the distance from your second index finger knuckle to the base of your thumb joint
  • A needle tool for tracing designs
  • A nail clipper to remove small pins
  • A rough sharpening stone
  • A finishing sharpening stone
  • Water for sharpening knives

The cutters begin similarly to Huazhou style.  The design is printed on paper and traced, or scratched, with the needle tool upon the translucent cowhide.  Depending on the thickness of the cowhide, Hebei cutters can cut up to 4 layers at a time.

After tracing the design with the needle tool, the cowhide is placed on the wax board and anchored with small-headed pins.

Small sewing pins, cut to 1/2″ length, hold down this design into the beeswax board.

Then, there are two very truncated steps in Hebei style:

1) The cowhide can be cut without moistening it first (this alone makes me jump for joy and saves me many grey hairs).  Even the very thick hide is cut dry.

2) The knife sharpening process is much less nuanced and precise.  Blades vary simply in width.  The angle of the blade itself can be the same (around 45 degrees) and does not need to be a perfectly flush from side to side.

<The following explained for a right handed artist, flip this if you’re a lefty.>

With the design pinned down and your blades sharp, you’re ready to cut (Yes!  It’s that easy!).  Your right hand holds the blade much as in Huazhou style.

It is held, blade out, and placed into the leather at your desired entry point.  With your left hand placed on the board and your left index finger securing the hide just beside your cut, move your blade down into and then through the beeswax along the cut.

See a short video clip of Tianxiang cutting here:

The beeswax board prevents blade slippage and helps to control your speed and motions.  I’ve seen a few Hebei style cutters at work and they do a mix of a small sawing, or rocking motions, as they move along the cut and some incorporate a bit of straight pushing like Huazhou style.  It depends very much on the cutter, the knife and the cut itself.

In Hebei style, the board is turned like the work itself would be turned in Huazhou style.  With the design pinned down, in order to get the right angle for your cut, the board must be spun.  Hint: place a small tack at the bottom center of your wooden board for a pivot point!

Unlike the Huazhou style, you are able to punch our your cuts as you go (as you are cutting down not sideways into the design so there is little risk of leather distortion), which is wonderful for instant-gratification people like me.

Once the design is fully cut, pick out the pins with the nail clippers and get ready to paint!A Master Lu cut piece, ready for assembly and lacquer

This is essentially the process.  The knives are sharpened every 25 or so cuts, but a double swipe back and forth is usually enough to get it sharp enough.

I’ve been practicing the method myself on a few practical projects and I find that while I miss the intricacy and control I have with Shaanxi/Huazhou style, the Hebei style is infinitely more approachable and great for a busy lifestyle.  Without the cowhide moistening process, you can pick up where you left off in the morning with no wait time.

I have also been cutting with handmade hide, purchased from the Lu family, for the first time and there is definitely a marked difference.  The lack of chemicals, the texture and consistency make cutting an absolute pleasure.  I may have to fork over the dough for my next couple of hides since I’m spoiled now.

A pair of Beijing Opera shoes.  Parts of a puppet I cut recently for the Zhonghua Shadow troupe at the Summer Palace.  A simple, but effective design.

Withing just a few short weeks of consistent self study, my style is already morphing.   I can feel myself pushing (Huazhou style) about 80% of the time and ‘sawing’ (Hebei style) about 20% of the time.  It’s faster to push and creates a smooth cut every time.  It’ll be interesting to see how Hebei style has affected my Huazhou technique, if at all, when I return to Xi’an in mid-August.

I’ve started a few puppet design projects for exhibition back home.  That prism effect that I have been feeling in the last month has inspired me to branch out and apply my current knowledge mid-year in order to understand better what I have yet to learn.

The beginning of a new shadow friend…not sure what his name is yet.

Designing in shadow is deceptively difficult to understand on paper and mixing that with my own aesthetic is proving arduous.  Still, a most fulfilling exercise.

Thanks, as always, for reading~