Tag Archives: chinese

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.


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.





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.



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.


Part Two of my work in Gansu to follow…

Thanks for reading~

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~

A for Effort

In the midst of my chaotic China welcome, I snuck in a trip to the outskirts of Tangshan and an overdue visit to the Lu family cutters. It’s been almost three years since I’ve been out east of Beijing and I was anxious to check in.

I was happy to find the Lu family unchanged in the ways that matter: still ineffably warm, earnest and thriving in their multiple modalities. Both father and mother Lu, while busy helping son Tianxiang set up his new apartment in preparation for a wife, catch me up on their latest happenings. The apartment is on the fifth floor of the third building in a large complex of newly built identical high-rises, which are no stranger to the China skyline.

The apartment building is so new, there are only a few neighbors as of yet – everyone in a different state of preparation.


In the Lu’s apartment, the electric kang (traditionally a steam-heated brick bed) is the only piece of furniture in the place so far. His father is working on the baseboards, his mother on making new buckwheat husk pillows and Tianxiang is intent on patching in the light switches. The pride of having his own place shows in Tianxiang. He lights up when he talks about how he’ll decorate the walls with his father’s shadow puppetry and display his cutting tools on a specially designed shelf. I am honored to be the apartment’s first guest and sleep like a log on the kang.

The next morning, I see that the hustle and bustle of movement and improvement within the small household is no different from the small town of Han Cheng itself. Just a 20 minute bus ride outside of Tangshan proper, Han Cheng is starting to outgrow its dirt roads and farmland feel. There’s a few fast food chains setting up shop in the first floor of the new high-rise apartment buildings and the street’s nightlife reveals a swarming population of younger folk. Tianxiang’s building complex is just one of a few that now break up the previously flat horizon of corn and millet fields.

Shortly after breakfast, Tianxiang takes me to the small village another 20 minutes further out of Tangshan, named Damengang. Here, in collaboration with a few progressive educators, Tianxiang has been developing shadow puppet curriculum with a small village school. The program has been a success from the beginning, clearly evident with a tour through the school’s exhibition room. The pieces on display are creative, careful and wonderful.

plastic headThis cutting sample is made by a student out of thin, flexible plastic – a more economic learning material than leather.

Later, I am privileged to meet the artists themselves. In the hallway, a band of students are studiously at work carving leather pieces on wax boards and painting the finished parts with watercolor.



In the music room, there is another group manipulating shadow puppets with help of a local troupe and when they see their teacher has arrived, they ready themselves for performance. We are treated to a short set of shows with students at the helm of each. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a bit seeing the young and the old working together behind the screen.

young and old

Like everything else he does, Tianxiang has created this program with the utmost care and thought. From the choice of plastic for the beginning cutters to the beautiful wax boards for the advanced students, this is no afternoon activity. A well-laid lesson plan of shadow puppet making integrated with performance practice, encouraged by both its long tradition and the pressing need for creativity — this is the kind of thing shadow puppetry needs. Who better to inherit and evolve the craft than China’s youth?

Tianxiang drops me off at his new apartment after a full day at the school. Shortly, he will head back to his parents house for the night. There isn’t much that needs to be said. He knows how much it has meant to me and I know how much it means to him. This work, this toil he offers on his days off, free nights and free hours from his day job in the city — it is something. They cycle of inspiration continues and we carry on.

the fam at their old homeThe Lus at their “old home” in western Han Cheng

Thanks for reading~

For previous stories on the Lus: 
For more recent stories on the Lus:

Fake It Till You Make It

For any of you who have been following this blog for awhile, you already know the issue of machine-made puppets within the world of Chinese shadow puppetry.  Two years ago, I wrote specifically about their growing dominance of shadow puppet market and how this newer/faster/cheaper specimen is hard e to distinguish from the real thing, and more urgently, how it is rapidly depleting whatever market was left for handmade puppets.

I’ve stated this before and I’ll state it again: I have no problem with machine-made objects or mass-produced copies of an original.  What I do have a problem with is the exploitation of a public’s lack of expertise and knowledge in order to sell these mass-produced machine-made objects as something else; in this case, a hand-cut shadow puppet.

This machine-made issue continues to be a problem wherever shadow puppets are sold.  A fellow puppeteer recently told me he bought some puppets off eBay.  Without even asking him about it, I knew they had to be laser cut.  With a cursory search, I turned up a number of options labeling themselves as ‘Chinese Handicrafts’, even ‘Vintage Chinese Shadow Puppet’ although – at anywhere from $9.99-$29.99, I’d bet my shorts there is nothing handmade or vintage about the thing.  And they’re not.  Just hold your cursor over the photos for magnification and you’ll see the tell tale sign of the laser cut (covered in this earlier post).

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.19 PMFind it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.50 PM Find it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.17.33 PMFind it here.

And as crabby as that makes me, a newer, more complicated threat has been creeping in on the shadow puppet horizon as of late.  It’s a sneakier, smarter knock-off that’s been duping the best of them.  China is now beginning to create hand-cut faux antique pieces.

I first encountered these when I went to visit a dealer friend of mine at the legendary Pangjiayuan ‘Antique Market’ in Beijing during my Fulbright year (2011).  I’d met him earlier on the shadow puppet circuit, most memorably at the shadow puppet conference in Gansu province.  I contacted him to do a bit more research on the going prices for shadow puppets from different regions (as the market has jumped notably in the last 5 years or so) and he gave me much more of an education than I bargained for.

After we were done chatting about regional styles, going prices, and machine-made puppets (of which he had a few), he took a long pause and gave me a sideways glance.  “See that puppet up there?” he asked.  “The small Northeastern style male figure?” I asked.  He nodded.  “What do you think?” he asked coyly.  I walked over to the small Eastern Beijing style puppet hanging on the line and looked a little closer.  It was hand cut.  Ok.  I looked closer.  It had a dark patina on it, which usually indicates usage/wear/age as smoke lanterns and oil from human hands darkens the leather, but this one was different.  It looked slightly dusty and crusty, instead of well worn.  Upon even closer inspection I could see that there was no additional wear marks on any of the control rod connections or joints.  This really piqued my curiosity.

“What is this?” I asked.  Not wanted to make a claim I would be too embarrassed to retract.  Again, he paused for a long time.  I wasn’t sure he was going to tell me.  “They’re fake old puppets.”


We spent the next 30 minutes or so going over the details, the things to note, the sensorial features of faked antique puppets and at some point I threw up my hands.  It was hard to tell on some of them.  “How will I, can I, ever be sure?”  He reminded me that now, after seeing so many machine-made puppets, I could pick them out of a lineup.  Well, that’s what it would be like with fakes once I got more experience.  It’s simple connoisseurship.  I bought a few fake samples to take home with me, just in case.  I thanked him, deeply, and said my goodbyes.

Faux Antique

Faux Antique 2My fake-antique samples.  Look pretty good, don’t they?

Although it’s a few years back, I remember this day and this meeting with such clarity.  Probably because it gave me such a royal shakedown.  After a day or two of feeling defeated, I tried hard to revive my spirits.  I reminded myself that there wouldn’t be fake-antiqued puppets if there wasn’t money to be made from them.  China has been knocking off their antique jade and porcelain for decades, successfully selling their wares to local and foreign museums and collectors.  Shouldn’t I feel happy that shadow puppetry has achieved the honor of being forged?

Over the last few years, those wishy-washy feelings of forced optimism have faded completely.  The fake issue within the shadow puppet market of China needs to be controlled.  The best way to do this is to devise an easy method(s) to identify fakes and transmit this knowledge to those who need it.  In my initial research, I’ve secured a wonderful museum with a solid Chinese shadow puppet collection – who I believe has a few fakes – to allow some testing and further experimentation to be done.  With some cooperation from a few puppet cutters in China who have sourced a few possible chemicals used for the shadow puppet patinas and some connections in North America from museum archivists on how to go about devising a test, I believe we have a starting point.

Since my first encounter with a faked-antique, I’ve seen thousands more puppets in numerous collections and museums on both sides of the globe.  My connoisseurship is far above what it was 3 years ago.   Seeing the real and the fake, the old and the new old, has repeatedly set me on course.  We owe it to the incredible masters who have given their life to doing it the hard way, every day.

Thanks, so much, for reading~

Additional reading on museum fakes and China:

A Hebei Province museum closes when it’s discovered that most of its artifacts are fake:                          http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/jul/17/jibaozhai-museum-closed-fakes-china

Forging and Art Market in China/NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/china-art-fraud/

Bloomberg weighs in on China’s growing global antique market and the number of fakes:                                                        http://www.bloomberg.com/video/89827873-growing-number-of-fake-antiques-in-china.html

Shadows in Heaven

Tonight, the world lost one of its greatest champions of Chinese shadow puppetry.  His collection of Shaanxi puppets, collected over his lifetime, is the single greatest collection of Shaanxi style shadow puppets in the world.  All because of his singular love and passion for the form.

You are missed, Yangfei.

Read his full story here.


Feeling Minnesota

Pardon my relative silence on this blog, but these last couple months have been a swirl of personal and professional goings on.  The catalyst of this particular swirl is my big move northward to Montreal.  The very thought of relocating oneself geographically has always triggered in me a deeper examination of the now, a reminder to take stock in absolutely everything.

I’ve moved away from my beloved hometown for love and study.  In the fall, I’ll begin an interdisciplinary PhD in the Humanities at Concordia University in Montreal.  The thesis proposed is continued research and apprenticeship with the traditional Chinese shadow puppet makers remaining in hopes or validating their work in a broader context of China, folk arts and inherited practices as well as working towards a best practices for a living archive of their process.  It’s a five-year program.  You’re probably thinking I’m bonkers right about now.  You’re probably right.

But, these giant leaps of faith towards love and passion become a necessity instead of a choice at some point in one’s life.

So, off I went – northward into the land of maple syrup and socialized medicine.

As a little treat to myself, knowing I would be leaving so soon, I spent my last few months in Minnesota following up on a trail of Chinese shadow puppets right in my beloved hometown of Minneapolis.  Partially, to satisfy my curiosity and partially to establish a relationship should I ever be in need of a collection to study.

I contacted the new curator of Asian art, Yang Liu, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art awhile back letting him know I was the local Chinese shadow puppet hunter and I’d heard a few old rumors that the MIA might be in possession of some.  He said he wasn’t sure, but would I like to come chat with him?  Of course I would.

Yang’s office is tucked into a cozy corner of the MIA’s back offices.  His office is small, neatly kept and predictably stuffed with Asian art books.  Yang is a warm and attentive art enthusiast with nothing but helpful ideas and generosity to share with a young puppet hunter.  Within an hour of sharing stories, we confirmed that there were some puppets in their vaults and I was welcome to come take a look.

I returned on an otherwise depressing day of April snowstorms and was whisked straight away to the collections’ holding room by Ken Krenz who somehow manages to keep track of the museums countless objects.  Just being in the back halls of the museum had me breathless.  Without hesitation, he brought out a small package of shadow puppet heads wrapped in tissue paper.

lady head






IMG_2200The imbedded hair follicle pattern in this leather tells you it’s most likely Donkey hide.

The collection is miniature in comparison to some I’ve seen; a hundred or so shadow puppet heads from the Northeast region of China.  They’re most likely from the 1900s, perhaps even from after the Revolution.  But, still.  They’re always beautiful, always educational, always motivating.  I poured through them carefully, taking more nuanced notes and feeling giddy at their touch.  I also marveled at the difference in my work and level of connoisseurship compared to even six months ago.  I knew what I was looking for, what notes to take and what to snap photos of.

Because the museum has known so little about these objects, not even sure if they were Chinese in origin, I’ve offered my services in exchange for a relationship with them.  I’ll come back and check on them every now and then and offer additional information when it arises.  There is something comforting about having a place to return to and a collection to familiarize myself with in the place I have always considered my home.  If nothing else, it’s helping to preserve the things I love in the places I love.

Someday, Minneapolis, I hope I can share these and so many others with you.  You’d love ‘um.

Thanks for reading~

It’s A Small World

I first met Joanne Oussoren and Frans Hakkemars of Droomtheater in Hong Kong, where we had gathered for Mingri Theatre Company’s Puppetry in Education conference.  There, even amongst a crowd of other puppeteers, we repeatedly found ourselves in conversations.  Perhaps it was because of their similar interests in puppetry as a vehicle for passing on cultural inheritance or our shared love of ancient forms of theatre.  Most likely, I suspect is was simply their open and inquisitive nature that drew me to them.

As community artists working often in their own neighborhoods in and around the burgeoning working-class metropolis of Rotterdam, Holland, they saw added complexity to the questions we were asking about traditions, inheritance and heritage as their immigrant population continues to swell.  We went our separate ways after just a few days, looking for future ways to put our questions into practice.

Fast-forward to November 2012 and I find myself across from Joanne and Frans at the breakfast table in Holland.  We’re still heavy in conversation, but this time over toast with chocolate sprinkles and an impressive array of cheeses.  Our dream of a collaboration was made real with generous funding from both private and public Netherlands entities and we’re anxious to get started.

Joanne and Frans have envisioned a program to fully involve the children of Feijnoord (a small township in the city of Rotterdam) in a cultural story important to Holland: Sinterklaas and his carnival of animals.   I’m here to guide the creation of this story within a simplified Chinese shadow style, accessible for ages 5-14.   The children begin with shadow puppet design and creation, then rehearsal and finally a performance for the community.  By letting the children become apart of every step of the process, we believe that this will deepen the embodiment of the story and enrich the learning experience.

Of all the iterations of our workshops, the most exciting was working in Feijnoord’s private afterschool program with children ages 6-12.  The township of Feijnoord is a historically popular place for new immigrants with its low rent and convenient proximity to the city center.  Currently, 80% of the township’s population is non-Dutch, with most of the immigrants coming in from Turkey and Morocco.

The afterschool program is a rare hold over from decades past – their building awkwardly stuck right in between rows of traditional Dutch apartments.


As the clock strikes three, dozens of kids speaking a myriad of languages stream into the waiting activities of the able-bodied volunteers.  This time, we’ve got shadow puppets for them.


And while these puppets may not look anything like the puppets I’ve been researching for 4 years, they are inherently Chinese in design and engineering.  We’ve developed a simplified method of using permanent markers on clear plastic so that kids don’t have to spend five years mastering leather cutting before they can make a great shadow puppet.  The control rods and joint methods are all faithfully Chinese.  I wonder if all this newness will derail their energy – it doesn’t.  They don’t even hesitate – there is an appetite here.  They dive in, mistakes and all and create some of the most alive puppets I’ve seen yet.





I’ve often been ‘warned’ about the ‘chaotic nature’ of such groups but I never find it to be thus.  Yes, they’re awfully loud and yes, it’s hard to keep them on track sometimes, yes.  But, truly, it’s only kids being kids in the best way possible – fully.  I’m much more disconcerted when I see children so well behaved that they’re afraid to color outside of the lines.   This paralytic fear of wrongness and failure are a much more serious problem.

I could go on and on here about the necessity of arts in a child’s development and how tests and data prove that the arts help children excel in all other fields but I won’t.  I’m just going to say that at its most fundamental level, the arts erase the right/wrong binary and encourage the infinite possibilities of everything.  I strongly believe that in the near future we’re going to need more creative and empathic thinkers than good chart readers.

After just an hour and a half of managing the chaos, the kids funnel out as fast as they funneled in and for a moment we are left in the loud silence.  I am exhausted but smiling.  It’s clear that these kids, with their unflinching ability to move forward – mistakes and all – are ready for anything.   And now, they have shadow puppetry in their arsenal.


Joanne and Frans and I pack up, talk to the volunteers and smush into the van once more.  We head home for a supper of fresh Marrakech sausages from the nearby Moroccan butcher and some typical Dutch mashed potatoes and greens.  Over the fading daylight, we crowd closer and closer to the warm table lamps – preparing the next workshop’s materials and jotting down our thoughts.

They’ll continue rehearsing after I’m gone and prepare for a final performance by the kids, for the community.  The project comes full circle this way.  The shadow puppet revolution is closer than ever.

After a week or so of this routine, we catch ourselves – it seems as though I’ve been here all along, we’ve been friends all along, we’ve been doing this all along.  Weirder still is that this is a reoccurring feeling I get when connecting with fellow puppeteers around the globe.  As the web gets larger, the feeling gets more intimate.   I can’t wait to get back.

Thanks for reading~