Tag Archives: Tangshan

一生一世 // One’s entire life

During my last visit to Tangshan city in Hebei province, I could already feel a wave of development coming. Getting off the bus (the only way to Tangshan from Beijing at the time) the new Train Station loomed tall overhead. It would be finished in 2015, they said. Other changes were felt in nearby suburbs and villages: huge high-rise apartment complexes and infrastructure changes in transportation. This time, I rode in on Tangshan’s new train – a world away from that long distance bus – and was welcomed to the city with vast marble floors, soaring curved ceilings and lots of people waiting to head somewhere else.

Tianxiang, of the amazing Lu Family, greeted me outside the new exits. We chatted as we got onto the city bus and rode out to Hancheng, hopped in an electric tricycle and were taken to the front door of Tianxiang’s new apartment. So much has happened since my last visit to his unfinished apartment in 2014. Tianxiang got married! And, as he informs me, with characteristically humble tones while riding the bus, they’re expecting their first child in July!

The joy that is all this good news carries us with ebullience until we reach the front door of his new, modern apartment. During my last visit in 2014, I stayed here even before he did: baseboard weren’t in, water wasn’t hooked up – even still, it was a vast change from the family’s old courtyard home.

Tianxiang’s wife, Zhangwei, opens the door with a cute belly bump. She’s gracious and kind and she’s made the place a cozy, tidy home. Alongside the new fixtures and amenities, their wedding photos are everywhere.

IMG_9384
IMG_9336

IMG_9391

I love seeing them in their finest, just above the couch, the cabinets and the computer. Soon, his mother and father arrive.

Instead of diving into the shadow puppet stuff, we spend the day catching up. I clumsily assist Zhangwei in cooking us a fabulous lunch, we watch their wedding video (1 hour and 12 minutes of pure fun and firecrackers), and take a trip to the local flea market. In and amongst the news and the updates, we realized we’ve been friends for five years. Five years of sharing our work and struggles and successes and moves and marriages. It’s great to see the Lu family and Tianxiang so happy.

In the next few days, we dive in. We head to their old house, check out the current work and talk about the present circumstances.

IMG_2783

IMG_2773

IMG_2828

Things have gotten worse for handmade shadow puppetry since 2014, which was already in a downslide from 2012’s machine-made shadow puppet takeover. This year the price for the Lu’s corn harvest was also the lowest in recent history. Luckily, the Lu’s aren’t in immediate danger of losing their livelihood as Tianxiang still makes a solid living as a computer technician in the city and his sister is still working a financial job in the outskirts of Beijing. Still, things have changed. Tianxiang’s father seems a bit more prone to either exhausted silence or short rants about the good old days. His mother, buoyed by Tianxiang’s settled future, is more open about her indifference to shadow puppetry, despite her acquired skills in applying color.

Tianxiang, too, has found his focus shifting. He shows me the ad-hoc cutting studio he sets up in his new living room from time to time, but he’s cutting much less than he was. Understandably.

IMG_2822

With the future of handmade shadow puppetry already seemingly gone, a new life partner and the next generation on the way, he is caught exactly where everyone else is: this lifetime. When I ask him if he’ll teach his kid to cut shadow puppets, he says ‘yes’, but with practicality in his voice. History is important, but so is the future.

Of all my friends and participants in this shadow puppet journey, I worry least about Tianxiang and the Lu family. I’m not exactly sure why that is other than an intuition that’s developed over the years. There is a pure heartedness to them – not to be conflated with naïveté. It means that they’re always the right side, even if it’s the practical side, of the changes. Tianxiang has been open to collaborations and adaptations of his knowledge while also being equally ardent about supporting his father and the Tangshan style of shadow puppetry. This kind of diversification is just what shadow puppetry needs: creative preservation alongside all the other more ‘traditional’ methods of safeguarding or institutionalizing our dying art forms.

Soon, our visit must come to an end. I leave his new wife, his new apartment and take a taxi to the new train station and get on the new train back Beijing. They’re building a fast train from Beijing to Tangshan, set to open 2018. Looking forward to another return and another lesson on how to navigate these oncoming developments, expansions and changes with grace and integrity.

~Thanks for reading

IMG_2860

L>R: Lu Fuzeng, Xu Yishu, Myself, Zhang Wei, Lu Tianxiang

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.

apartment

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.

cutting

painting

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: