Tag Archives: museum

The Little Museum That Could

Along the one mile stretch of main street that anchors the small Northwestern town of Huanxian in Gansu province, you’ll find their cultural center. Painted a light peachy pink, the building stands out amongst the rest of the concrete. At the top floor of this modest building jutted along the west side of their central square is one of the nicest museum collections of shadow puppetry I’ve been able to take my time with.


The three times I visited during my residency in Huanxian, the building was like a ghost town. I had to hunt down the ‘guy with the key’ twice, in order to access the exhibition. I suppose in a town this small, everyone has seen the exhibition already. Once the room was opened, it was just me in those three rooms. I could just sit and stare and take it all in for as long as I darn well pleased.

Sure, the fact that all the pieces are being held up by packaging tape? Absolutely grimace inducing. But, other than that – there are some unforgettably unique designs that are beautifully posed, well lit and exquisite in their artistry.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may notice that the Gansu shadow puppet style strongly resembles the Shaanxi aesthetic. This is most likely because, back in the day, shadow puppetry made its way Northwest from Shaanxi. Along the way, the singing method and cutting method shifted, but the aesthetic remained largely intact.

I wish I could post all the pictures for you. Or, better yet, teleport you there to witness them first hand. It’s hard to describe just how you feel when standing in front of a master cut piece worn from its life on the screen. How I wish I could have seen them in action.

Thanks for reading & looking ~




IMG_7668Rooftop Terrace Detail


IMG_7693Roof Detail



IMG_7807A Water Monster (Crab) from the White Snake Story 

IMG_7812Another Water Monster  (Turtle) from the White Snake Story



IMG_7858The sun!

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

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~


During my Fulbright tenure, I had a few friends who took their precious two-week out-of-country trip to nearby Taiwan.  Their reports were so glowing I was suspect.  “The air!  The order!  The internet access!”, they’d exclaim.  Could it be true?  In the year that has followed my return, I’ve heard countless people recount the same wondrous impossibilities to me: “no one spits!” “I didn’t get travel diarrhea!”

Finding out I was headed there this past November to travel with the Taiyuan Puppet Company (whom I met in Beijing last year) on their Touch Taiwan project and check out the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museums Chinese shadow puppet collection got me so curious.  I was going back to China, or was I?

Mainland China and Taiwan’s political conflict runs deep.  If you know anything about the Communist Revolution, then you’re well versed why.   But, it goes beyond that.  Since then, their relationship has remained tenuous at best.

I arrived on a long flight from the Netherlands and couldn’t tell quite where I was.  They were speaking Chinese, yes, but so much of what I had come to know and love about mainland China wasn’t immediately present.  There really was no spitting.  And – so. much. order.  The Taiwanese people wait in line quietly for the next subway.  These waiting lines are painted in clear pathways on the platform floor and no one is a step out of place.  (I actually butted ahead of someone, not noticing the painted lines, and got a ‘she’s from the mainland’ dig from a person behind me.)  The sense actually didn’t make sense to me.  I don’t mean to say that mainland China is only a bundle of chaos, but there is a level of unpredictability and disorder that exists just under the surface, all the time.  Adventure, good and bad, is always in the air.  Taiwan was immediately safe and knowable.

After a few days fighting off a terrible cold and flu, I finally made my way to the oldest part of Taipei, the Dadaocheng district, to meet up with the Taiyuan Theatre Company.  Here, the streets narrowed, the smells erupted and the sound pollution tripled.  I felt a familiarity in the air.  The puppet theatre resides in a cozy four-floor building and butts up next to their partner museum that houses a lovely, comprehensive Asian puppetry collection.  The entire place is a physical manifestation of my brain and heart: half practitioner and puppeteer, half researcher and archivist.  It instantly felt like home.

The office was exactly as I’d imagined – a hive of activity and laughter.  It took me but a moment to get situated, meet everyone and I spent the rest of the week working on various projects including scenic painting for their latest puppet show.


Rehearsal for their next show, with the Golden Ray style of hand puppets – which are slightly larger than the oldest form.


Scenic painting some desert rocks – in progress.


The puppet theatre

When I’m not in the workshop, I climb the rickety stairs out back to another haven: the beautifully kept puppet archives.  Inside the frosty chambers are shelves upon shelves of treasures so beautiful, I feel subservient.  You can reach out and touch them, actually touch them.  All of them, perfectly laid out on their corresponding shelf – everything from hand puppets, shadow puppets, rod puppets, head pieces, and accessories from nearly every Asian country.


IMG_1939They look like they’re just resting there, waiting for you to appreciate them.

I spent a couple afternoons helping the museum identify a few sets of Chinese shadow puppets and to simply spend time with the pieces.  So few collections are this close to me.  Usually, the great pieces in the mainland are behind glass and unable to be touched, others are in collections so wrapped up in red tape, I’ll probably never see them.  It was great to touch, to smell, to scrutinize in glorious leisure.

When my time came to an end, they waved me off in characteristic style.  We split a feast of food at their meeting table and shared a few gracious toasts.  I was sad to leave, but as usual, confident I’ll find an excuse to return.


As I found my way to the airport, without a hitch in the getting there, I was again made to recognize the benefits to Taiwan’s ideological proximity – somewhere in between mainland China and the west.  The collection in particular.  My inquiries of pieces, of origins, of context are met with equal interest, never offense.  The education that intimacy with the pieces brings is unparalleled.  Just as I was grateful for the opportunity here, I grumbled about the treasures that will most likely remain out of my reach on the mainland – forever.  I may spend a lifetime in service to the art form and never get a moment with the true ancestors.

Still, in some ways, I missed the fight, the adventure, the obstacles that the mainland always presents to me.  It has helped me tangibly connect with my own desire to understand and champion the art form.  So, glad for the mainland and glad for China-lite – both of which give me an different entry point into this tradition that I love so well.

Thanks for reading~


Lost and Found

Even after nine months of living here, I’m still amazed at how big China is. The land, the people, the history, the stories, the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics – all of it is China big. It’s on a whole other scale from what we’re used to. And it’s even more amazing then, when in this land of huge, you can find something so small.

I’d heard about the Cui Shadow Puppet Museum the way most of us did. In December 2010, the New York Times published an article featuring the small shadow puppet museum in the outskirts of Beijing. A few of my friends and colleagues sent it to me and I read with eager delight. (Click here to read the original article)

Upon arrival in Beijing, I asked a few of my teachers about the museum. One teacher told me they were moving, another told me it was too far away and yet another had never heard of it. I tried to seek a working phone number from the internet or other contacts, but to no avail.

Summer came around and I returned to Beijing but I still didn’t go. I had no more information than I did in the spring and I was busy. I left for the fall without thinking twice about it.

During my latest trip in Hubei, my master asked where I was headed after my visit with him. “Beijing”, I said. “Beijing? Have you been to the Cui Museum?” He asked. I explained my hesitancy. His son piped up and told me they had returned in July and would be around until next spring

Armed with the knowledge that they were actually there, I decided to give it a go when I returned to Beijing. On my first free day, I headed out on the subway with just an address in hand (I still hadn’t found a working phone number) and headed to the closest ‘Golden Bridge Park’ – which wasn’t close at all. As addresses often go in China, it wasn’t the right one. Two more hours of subway riding and I had at least arrived in the right vicinity. The address says Beijing, but it’s not the Beijing you and I know. It’s so far southeast of the city that you actually have to get off the city line and transfer to an extension line. It’s a full 80 minutes from the city center. As I finally ended my eternal subway ride, I stepped out into the great unknown of a Beijing suburb.

I wandered to the first bus stop heading south. Already waiting on the dusty meridian was a curly haired foreigner. For a few seconds, I wondered if she was lost. Then it occurred to me we might just be headed to the same place. I caught her eye and asked her where she was headed. “To the shadow puppet museum”. “Me too!” I said, “what brings you there?” “I’m writing a paper”. Call it instinct, hope or just dumb luck, but I had to ask “what’s your name?” She looked at me with a little apprehension and answered “Beatriz”. Of course, she was. Beatriz had emailed me a while back; she was working on a research paper about shadow puppetry on her year abroad from Spain and had been following my blog, but as it was now blocked by China’s firewall she had contacted me directly. We had never met face to face.

It was one of those strange moments that you can’t decipher whether it’s fantastically extraordinary or just plain obvious. Two people after the same small thing, no matter how far they’ve come, are bound to bump into each other at some point. The fact that it was this random afternoon, at the very outskirts of China’s capitol, at a no name dusty bus stop, made it feel extraordinary.

We rode together and found our way to the very tucked away Cui Shadow Puppet Museum. It resides on the first floor of a plain looking apartment building in a plain looking apartment complex. If you don’t speak Chinese, I wouldn’t recommend trying to find this place on your own.

When we arrived, I explained who I was and how Beatriz and I ended up here. After a short chat, Mr. Cui took us around the museum himself. He and his wife have purchased all three apartments on the first floor of their building and converted two into a small, cramped and chaotic place to display their collection. After walking through the rooms by the numbered order, I had still failed to see any sort of organization. The cases and rooms are not divided by region or time period or by shows. Sporadic bulletin boards are bursting with newspaper clippings, posters and pamphlets from items they’ve collected over the years and the skeleton of the apartments are still visible under all the puppetry.

It’s a bit of information overload, but that’s part of its charm. While other collections may have better pieces and display them in a more cohesive way, this museum almost feels like shadow puppetry itself: resourceful, cluttered and passionate.

But the clutter may not last. The couple plans to spend much of next year back in America, both with their son in New York and at the Indiana Children’s Museum, who has hired them in a long-term arrangement. When they’re gone, their museum remains closed.

Part of me is glad to see Chinese shadow puppetry making its way west towards America, but much of me is sad that the Cui’s had to look for opportunities away from home. Hopefully, this is just a new chapter in Chinese shadow puppetrys evolution for survival. Hopefully, they’ll find their new home and hosts welcoming.

Thanks for reading~

{My photos from this trip are few, as photography inside the museum is prohibited}

Directions on how to get to the Cui Shadow Puppet Museum(open this year until end of December 2011)

Name: 北京皮影艺术博物馆

Beijing Piying Yishu Bowuguan

Beijing Shadow Puppet Arts Museum

Curators: Mr. Cui (Cui Yongping) and Mrs. Cui (Wang Shuqing)

Address: 北京通州马驹桥, 金桥花园, 16

Beijing, Tongzhou Majuqiao, Jinqiao Huayuan, Number 16

Beijing City, Tongzhou District, Maju Bridge, Jinqiao Garden Complex, Building 16

Museum Phone # {86}010-60502692

Mobile Phone # 13161334683

Email: cuiyongping2005@163.com (not sure how often they check this)


Take Beijing Subway Line 5 heading south towards Songjiazhuang

Transfer at Songjiazhuang 宋家庄(last stop) to the Yizhuang亦庄 Line

Get off the Yizhuang 亦庄 line at the Tongji Nanlu 同济南路 stop

From there, hail a taxi (about 15 yuan) to the address above

Or take bus 542 or 821 to the Majuqiao #1 stop 马驹桥一号桥

The museum is in a building complex on the EAST side ofXihou Jie 西后街

You’ll have to ask (either with words or with a print out of the information above) around until someone knows how to direct you. There are no signs on the outside of the building complex.

Happy hunting~