Tag Archives: puppetry

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

A ChineseAmerican Shadow Play

As a theatre artist who researches, I see no better way to put my discoveries and theories into practice than through performance.   Setting up a project centered around my year of research before I had even left for China last year may seem presumptuous, but luckily I presumed right.  It is my next best step.

I’ve thought about my little shadow show continuously for the past two years.  The seed of it has been there for much longer.   Carrying a living idea around in your pocket is such a good way to enrich the fieldwork experience.  Those chaotic and quiet moments were calmed or enthused by reorienting my research around this little idea.

And, as much as I probably could have used a break this spring, there is no better way to start this process of unraveling the experience – no matter how messy or impossible it may seem.  And it certainly is unraveling.

With a story outline in hand, my trusty collaborators and I dove into our first session of intensive rehearsals a few weeks ago with the objective of simply tearing the story apart and putting it back together again.  What started out as a simple story of a shadow puppeteering Grandfather’s journey through 1930’s China up until present day has become a much richer, much more dimensional story in just two weeks.   We’ve intentionally left it an adolescent 3rd draft in order to give us more room to play when the puppets have arrived.

For these three weeks, I’m in the studio day and night finalizing designs, cutting puppets, assembling lights, ordering projector bulbs, assembling the shadow puppet screen, painting, scenery building (etc, etc) to begin visually assembling the show.   This is the part I’m used to and comfortable exploring inside of.  I could sit in the dark making things dance with light all the day/night long.

Testing shadows in larger scale on the overhead projector.

I was a bit nervous setting up my first cutting studio in the US.  After my 2008 apprenticeship, I tried to cut a few times at home only to realize that I hadn’t learned enough.  I was so frustrated in the first 2 attempts that I gave up indefinitely.  My intention during my Fulbright apprenticeship was to get to a place where I could continue studying completely on my own, and – big sigh of relief – I think I’m there.

My modest puppet cutting station.  It’s usually a lot cleaner than that (sort of).  Oh and I’m not drinking Mountain Dew – that’s my Chinese-style sharpening stone water container with a hole punched in the cap.

While I still have years to go before I’ll get anywhere close to mastery, my hand-cutting puppet skills have already improved in the two weeks I’ve been cutting daily.  I’m realizing just how different the cowhides are (handmade, machine made, top-cut, second layer, color, finish) and how they determine the moisture content before you cut.  And the blades, the blades! My first attempt to sharpen my knives at home proved to be, yet again, hair-greying.  I had brought home two coarse sharpening blocks that were so soft, they ground down with each stroke, leaving me a concave groove in exactly the wrong place.  I felt doomed.  I fretted and bought every sharpening stone in Home Depot only to find they all had the same problem. Finally, after I told myself to give it a rest for a day or two – I stumbled upon the one red block I’d purchased in Xi’an somewhere.  I tried it and exploded with a trail of happy expletives.   This was the stone!  I could sharpen on it without sharpening it into a sandy mess.  And with it, I’ve been slowly honing my hand-sharpening nuance.

We’ve still got along way to go: another intensive rehearsal period of integrating text with the visual world and then another break to finish up things on the production side.  Performance dates/venues are still in flux, but the show will be performed sometime in May/June in Minneapolis.  Of course, I’ll post about it here.

Thanks for reading~

Some of the puppets in progress~

Note: while the my designs draw heavily from contemporary Cultural Revolution puppet design from China, they are all original.The young mother character: unpainted and unjoined.  Handcut cowhide.  14″ tall.

The central Grandfather character as an older man.  Unpainted and unjoined.  Handcut cowhide. 14″ tall.

Just a note about funding for the arts: I’m quite sure Minnesota’s arts funding opportunities is much of what makes our arts community (and henceforth our city) so vibrant, interesting and diverse.  This project has been funded by an Artists Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, a Next Step Grant from the Minnesota Regional Arts Council and a Puffin Foundation Grant.


The End of the Line

Today was my first ‘day off’ since arriving in China.  By ‘day off’ I mean simply sitting down at a desk and organizing my thoughts and to-do lists and what have you.  Catching my breath was needed after a whirlwind transition from America, meeting Simon in Hong Kong, the Fulbright midyear conference and my entry onto the mainland.

The 4th person I called today as Lu Hai.  I was told Lu Hai is a master puppet maker and performer.  On the 3rd ring, he picked up.

(In Chinese) “ Hello?”

“Hello, is Lu Hai there?”

“This is.”

“Hello.  My name is Annie.  I’m an American puppeteer in China studying shadow puppetry.  If you have time in the next couple of weeks, I’d love to meet you and ask you a few questions.”

“How about today?”

Aha.  Not the day off I had planned.  But when the puppets call, I must answer.

Within the hour, I was on the subway headed to the western most part of Beijing.  Jumping off at the end of Line 1, I hopped into a taxi and called Lu Hai.  Lu Hai explained where his apartment was to the taxi driver and we proceeded to drive further west of Beijing and into the mountains.  Here there are mostly energy plants and small building clusters to house their employees.

After 10 or so miles, I am dropped off at what seems like the end of the world.  And I wait.  Nothing.  I wait some more.  Nothing.  I call Lu Hai and explain that I have arrived and am waiting by the lady selling GuoCha berries.   I can’t think of any other way to describe my whereabouts.

In 5 minutes, Lu Hai rounds the corner.  He has a warm, wrinkled face and a relaxed gait.  He picks me out from 200 ft away and beckons me toward him.  Such a firm handshake.

His family’s apartment is modest and cozy.  A two bedroom configuration of cement and tile.  His wife and two grown children are shelling garlic cloves for dinner and they welcome me with equal warmth.

The next hour is spent looking through Lu Hai’s puppets and talking about his work.  He is a sixth generation Beijing style puppeteer, passed down through sons for over a hundred years.  He designs, cuts, performs and teaches the art form.  With a secret smile, he informs me that I called at a good time, for he is heading to Guan Dong in 3 days to teach for four months.

Beijing Shadow style differs greatly from traditional Xian puppets.  They are larger, softer and less intricate.  It’s thought to be an innovation from the original form – first presented only around 500 years ago in the Northeastern area of China.

Lu Hai has taken it a step further.  He’s quite aware of the fact that Chinese shadow puppetry can’t be sustained as it had been for the last thousand years or so.  He’s pushing it forward with new stories, new characters and an infusion of animal characters that he assured me “make the kids happy”.  They must.

He has trained troupes in China and toured to a number of Western European countries in his younger days.  His upcoming trip to Guan Dong is to train a troupe of dwarves to perform.  This is a growing trend as their height and physical constraints make regular physical labor impossible.  Coincidentally, I was scheduled to see the Beijing troupe perform this week at the Summer Palace.

While he talks, he unwraps his bundled collection of performance puppets. I can’t tell you how it feels to see these beautiful creations presented by the artist in person.   Pigs, alligators, monkeys, dolphins, creatures, people, scenic pieces, the works – an absolute delight and they aren’t even being animated.

We talk for a while about everything; how he met his wife while they were training together under his father, why he has chosen to veer from the traditional and how his son would be 7th generation, if he wanted to perform.  He acknowledges that his son is the end of the line with no sadness or judgment that I can see.  Perhaps this is something he believes was inevitable or perhaps they’ve come to an understanding.

Just when I feel it’s time to wrap up and announce that I’ve over-stayed my welcome, they all dress and insist that I ride with them to his studio.  Ok, I say.  Another 15 miles into the winding mountains and beyond the visible edge of the city lies Lu Hai’s puppet studio.  On the second floor of a non-descript red building is a modest couple of rooms for design, cutting, painting, presentation and a small stage with seating.  They all show me around the place and their pride and enthusiasm is humbling.

After a half hour or so, we pack into the car and they drop me near the train station.  I’ve agreed to study with him in Guan Dong for a few weeks and return to their home in Beijing to take pictures of his puppets and learn to make shadow puppet hides in the fall.  I impulsively move in for a hug as I leave the car side and Lu Hai hugs me back after a moment.  He tells me he’s has a lot of students, but I am the first American.   I am beginning to understand a thing about puppeteers – we’ve got family wherever we go.

With the fading sun at my back, I descend into the subway and reflect quietly as rush hour fills the empty train at the beginning of the line.

Thanks for reading~

For a more recent story on Lu Hai, follow the link: Making the Old New

Thanks to Stephen Kaplin @ Chinese Theatre Works for leading me to Lu Hai.  www.chinesetheatreworks.org