Tag Archives: traditional

Paradise Lost – Part 2

{Continued from Paradise Lost – Part 1.}

After a disheartening few days in Heshun Ancient Scenic Area and my sobering discoveries about the Tengchong Shadow Puppet Troupe, I went back to my hostel room to regroup.

Since I’d arrived in paradise, I’d been slowly developing a rash all over my body. This day, today, I’d hit my peak. My skin screamed out for hot water or dry sheets – any place with less humidity. Part of me felt like the increased discomfort outside was simply a manifestation of my growing unease inside. This whole trip, supposedly a triumphant return to Chinese shadow puppet apprenticeship, had turned into a long, sad trail of stories. Although my skin is telling me to run, I know I must stay. I need at least one more day to visit the Master Liu in Liuzha Zhai. 

The next day, I hustle to organize a ride out to the village and make sure the master is at home via his nephew, who is away on a job. The last time I visited Liuzha Zhai in 2011, I had been given a ride by the one of the former members of the troupe and the day had been filled with glorious family fun, community celebrations and stunning food. This time, it is just me – trying to find my way back along the breadcrumbs that might still be there.

A few buses get me back to Tengchong city proper. There, I hunt down directions to Liuzha Zhai. In a town any larger than this, it would be impossible to find someone who knows the way. As it is, everyone knows the way. The easiest path emerges as a bus to Huoshan, the famous volcano monument and then a private ride from there.

The tourist buses in town also have the lonely feel of off-season. Just villagers now, trying to get back to their village after selling their morning’s worth of wares in town or kids returning home from school. I seem to be the only possible tourist on the bus and I’m not even heading to Huoshan. After I dismount, I quickly make my way back to the biggest intersection near the old volcano and ask for a car that might take me to Liuzha Zhai. Within minutes, we are speeding down the road in a beige colored metal box. And, within just a few more minutes, the village’s gate comes into view. I hop off and make my way down a side road into the village.

This little side road feels familiar.

I’ve walked it before. The tall brick walls of the village homes are only bested by the old growth of the trees that creep over top of them. The canopy feels warm and cool at the same time, casting a green glow on everything below. The relative quiet of village life compared with the din of a small town is noticeable. The mind quiets as well. I walk slowly even though I am anxious to get somewhere.

I know the master’s house is close – well, everything is relatively close in a small village. I ask a few passersby and they point me in the direction I am headed. A few missed turns and dead ends and finally, I am there.

With a timid knock, I step over the threshold of the master’s big red doorway.


I meet his wife again who tells me the master is out but will be home shortly. I wait.


She seems tired and not interested in talking, so I let the silence linger. In a few minutes, the master comes waddling through the doorway. We grin and I let him lead the way.

IMG_8066 copy

Out first is a collection of machine-made puppets, which everyone has nowadays. I admire them; let him set them on some white foam backgrounds and we talk about their coloring and design. Next, some simpler handmade puppets depicting the common ethnic minorities in Yunnan province are placed into my hands.

IMG_8038Modern Hand-cut Ethnic Minority Shadow Puppets

The leather feels smooth, beautiful and though simple, the aesthetic is satisfying. Finally, I ask him to bring out his oldest puppets.

IMG_8048A 100+ year old Yunnan shadow puppet, made by Master Liu’s ancestors. 

The workmanship, the thick hide and the strength of the design is mesmerizing. It trumps all here.

Puppets are always my favorite thing. I could look at them for days on end and remain in their differences, their cutting mastery, their design logic – but today, I’m distracted. Even the beauty of the oldest puppet can’t keep me. I want to know how the master’s doing. To understand how he was in 2011 and to see him now, my heart sinks. The master has clearly been drinking at lunch, he has a terrible cough and he’s listless. I start gently by asking him about the troupe, his nephew, the changes. “How many performances do you have per year now?” “Not many”, “How is the troupe doing?” “The young people don’t like to participate anymore.” It seems to be too much already. His answers are patient, but curt enough for me to know I shouldn’t plunge too much further in. We small talk about big stuff: how many shadow puppet players from his generation are left, the power TV seems to have over the young people and his nephew. The answers are clear enough.

We talk for over an hour. I feel paralyzed. Part of me feels like I’m wasting his time and part of me never wants to leave. I can’t tell if my presence might give him a small remembrance that his work is meaningful or if it’s simply a nuisance that I won’t stop asking questions that have little direct meaning in his world. At some point it does feel greedy and I see his energy flagging. I buy a few modest modern puppets (hand-cut) and we say our goodbyes.

Prematurely, I’m back out onto the road, under the canopy, feeling lost. Much more lost than when I came.

Instead of heading directly to catch another car heading back to Huoshan, I decide to take a long walk around the village again. Nothing else seems to have changed from three years ago. Small children run and play, the small weekday market is doing modest business on the main road and though the prayer hall and the theatre are locked, they don’t look as though they’ve been left alone for too long.




It’s true what they say. Some things change and some things stay the same. So, I hitch a car back into town and do my best to keep my chin up.

Thanks for reading~

North by Northwest – Part 2

Continued from North by Northwest – Part 1

My classes were to start the next morning at nine am. In classic Annie-fashion, I was ready around 8:45 and had to pace around the back parking lot in order to avoid being early. I walked in slow motion from my sixth floor hotel room to the workshops just out back. I took the steps to the second floor with patience. In a glance, I saw Master Gao’s door was open and as I peaked through the cloth flap, I saw him studiously working at his desk. He had already prepared the side desk for me, with a cutting mat, one blade and a comfortable chair.


We exchanged quick pleasantries and got to work. After a quick discussion of my previous work in the Shaanxi and Tangshan style of cutting leather, a small scrap of hide was placed in front of me and along with a selection of head patterns. I chose a simple woman’s head to start my practice.

In a moment, the setting felt so familiar that my body unconsciously fell into work mode. I checked the hide for moisture, picked up my needle tool, aligned my hide over the pattern and began to trace with concerted concentration. They say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. And even though the Gansu cutting method is wholly different from the others, my understanding of the way in which I was going to learn this was the same. I went slow, I was patient and I was persistent.

Master Gao’s skills are humbly presented, even though he’s registered as a national level cultural artist. His pieces have an effortless, yet unforgiving look to them: unapologetically beautiful.



And, he’s a natural teacher. He offers up appropriate suggestions with a soft voice and presents useful comparisons to other cutting methods. He continues to cut as I study, checking in on me every 20 minutes or pausing for a direct question.


This set up may seem normal to the uninitiated, but it is actually unusual in the best sense. The traditional Chinese shadow puppetry apprentice system has changed greatly over the last century. In the early part of the 1900s, as Chinese shadow puppetry was just beginning its end, the apprentice system was still a one-on-one relationship. The emphasis on proximity and prolonged study was central to the transmission. Nowadays, ever since Chinese shadow puppetry picked back up in the late 1970s after decades of repression, the apprentice system looks more like a technical school than anything else. There is often a division of labor (i.e. cutters, painters, designers) and there is an understanding that the goal is commercial, not artistic. The teaching style is more dogmatic in its approach, rather than a cyclical feedback cycle between Master and Apprentice.

In the course of my study in Gansu, I took advantage of my Master’s constant practice and my proximity and tried hard not to take it all for granted. I quickly developed a happy discourse between my own work and observed the master when I had nagging questions. So much can be understood if you know how to look. And though I’m nowhere near mastering this method of puppet making, I feel confident I’ve embodied the basic enough to continue studying on my own.

IMG_7646My progress with the simple woman’s head design; versions 1 through 5.

We ended the week with increased conversations about Master Gao’s biography, his family and the future of traditional shadow puppetry. All of Master Gao’s children have gone onto college, which is a great accomplishment, and all three of them are pursuing artistic fields. He beams with pride as he shows me his daughter’s Chinese style paintings. And although they all live or attend school in different provinces, you get a sense that they’re close. He knows there’s no work for them in Huanxian.

In regards to the future of Chinese shadow puppetry, he has no more confidence than I do. And yet, he also doesn’t seem to have the worry or regret that one might expect. There is a steadiness about him that assuages my worries for a time. Perhaps this perspective is developed from the honest and tangible work of a craftsman, the practicality of a crafter. I feel it too: the solidity of the tools and the ability to manipulate the leather in my hands gives me a growing sense of confidence in all things.

The day before my study is over, I can feel the goodbye already begin to weigh heavily on me. These chances to study grow more and more exceptional. These chances to study with a gifted cutter and teacher? You get the idea.


You’ll find me back in Northwest as soon as I can find my way back to China.

Thanks for reading~

The Odd One Out

I’m back on the mainland and one thing is clear.  I was not ready for it.  My transition back home at the beginning of the year was suspiciously uneventful – just a day of jetlag and a never-ending appreciation of the clear blue skies.  People usually remark that it’s not culture shock one has to be prepared for, but the reverse.

In my case, it’s the reverse of the reverse.  While my months in the US have seemed uneventful, they were indeed filled with an unconscious assimilation.

Within a week or two, I was used to metered interactions, this thing called my Car, and buying all my groceries in bags/boxes/cartons.  Within a month, that patient pace I had developed on the road was replaced with the familiar buzz of anxiety and stress brought on by the practicalities of making a life as an artist and a million other responsibilities.  More surprising was how quickly my expectations returned.   If my expected 10 minute route was thwarted by unexpected tunnel block or a website made me search for the purchase button – my sudden annoyance caught me off guard.

I knew something would be different this time around, how could it not?  You always return to a place changed and that change is most apparent once you are there and can compare yourself with your last self.

This time is no different.  I am disappointed with my short temper, my disbelief at the pollution and the chaos and my overall disorientation.

The group of foreign puppeteers attending the conference in Hong Kong and I have sojourned into the heart of mainland China.  Hunan province is lodged directly in the center of China’s enormous landmass and is widely known as Mao Tze Deng’s birthplace.   While the idol worship of Communist China’s first Chairman has slowly evaporated elsewhere, his visage is omnipresent here; he’s hanging from rearview mirrors or staring at you from large street posters and even from the lapels of workmen.

We are in Changsha, Hunan’s capital city, to check out their provincial puppet troupe among other things and it’s one of the most indistinguishable Chinese cities I’ve ever visited.  It’s easy to get lost here, as one block so resembles another.  This city was decimated during the Japanese occupation, which means no building is more than 60 years old.  They’re constructing at an unprecedented rate like the rest of China – across the riverbanks, new apartment developments go on for miles.  Last year, I may have been as excited as everyone else was about the future in those hollow buildings, but now they look like an ominous foreshadowing.   See? I’m grumpy again.

Thankfully, as usual, the puppets have come to my rescue.  And right now, I’m desperate for them.

The Hunan Puppet and Shadow Art Protection and Inheritance Center of China (if that’s not a mouthful, I don’t know what is) is one of the biggest and best-trained troupes around.  Their welcome performances were an absolute delight and while their shows are entirely modern, they are some of the best I’ve seen.   During our tour and a few short meetings, I couldn’t get any straight answers about what exactly was being done on the preservation and protection side.  As of now, they seem to function primarily as the province’s biggest puppet troupe and are doing that swimmingly. Hopefully, the preservation initiatives will get underway soon.

On our third day in Changsha, we headed into the countryside.  In classic Chinese tour guide fashion, we hadn’t been told where we were going until the night before.  A traditional Hunan shadow puppet family!  I eagerly charged all my batteries, cleared my digital cards and packed a fresh notepad.

By 11 the next morning, we had pulled in front of a two-story tiled house far into the outskirts of Changsha.  The air out here felt green and expanded, I took a few grateful gulps in.  The Wang Cheng shadow troupe is headed up by descendants of a famous Changsha player who passed away just a few years ago.  They dedicate a second floor room to his mini-museum: a framed portrait, some articles and some of his best puppets.

With the rest of the puppeteers around, it was hard to ask questions or do anything other than observe. So I turned my eye to the objects in the room and snapped away.  The puppets themselves are so infinitely different than any other shadow tradition in China, that I found myself just staring.

The Hunan shadow puppet is traditionally made out of thickly layered tag-board.

Originally, they glued many layers of paper together to make a thicker board.  Within the cuts – some are left open and others are filled in with paper-thin colored tissue to resemble the translucent leather from other traditions.  What’s left is a striking combination of black, white and colored shadow.  More interesting is that they’re the only tradition that consistently uses a ¾ turned face (some regions do have these puppets but they’re unique and represent certain characters) and this face is usually a solid piece of leather with painted detail – no cuts.

I’ve been told the use of paper in some regions was because of religious beliefs that banned the killing of animals, but here in Hunan they explained that it was used out of necessity – leather was too expensive.

More surprisingly is that you can cut this thick cardstock the same way you would a Yunnan or Northeastern puppet – by sawing a thick blade through the material.

The troupe also makes shadow puppets out of leather now and performed with them for our performance.

Some of the newer puppets were cut out of two thinner layers of cardstock and sewn together with the layers of colored tissue already in between.  I think you’ll agree that they’re all stunning – in shadow or out of it.

And if this wasn’t enough to satisfy the grumpiest of returning researchers, there was a short performance to behold in the living room.  Within minutes, the troupe had erected the cleverest of screens, much smaller than even the smallest screens I’ve seen in Shaanxi province.

They’re also the first troupe to advertise their telephone number in leather.

Once the show started, it was my usual battle between documentation and watching the performance with my own eyes.  The performance techniques are somewhat simplistic with just two control rods on most of the puppets, but it didn’t matter.  Those shadows could captivate standing perfectly still.  And best of all, the singing!  How I wish I could bottle it in a conch shell and bring it back with me for you all to hear.  So deep and clear and strong.  It made me want to get up on a bench and shout for more.

They were done all too soon, urged to finish quickly as they assumed the tourists wouldn’t want the whole show.   How I wished I could have stayed there all day, listening to them.

I’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs to lead me back someday soon.

Thanks for reading~

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

The Way We See It

I’ve been back home for over two months now.  And while I feel a longing for the shadow puppet trail, I’ve also been able to do a different kind of searching here in America.  It’s calmed my anxiety about the trail running cold or me losing my steam.  This time of processing and pondering is necessary to get to a more fulfilling continuation of the work.

Diving further into historical research while simultaneously building new work for the shadow theatre with my Chinese shadow training, has gotten me caught in some in some swirls of cyclical discovery and impossible intersections.   Sometimes, there is no way to gracefully integrate the old with the new.  Sometimes, it happens naturally.

My fascination with Chinese shadow puppetry has as much to do with what is presented as how it is presented.

The traditional countryside performances are the center of community celebrations and usually took place from sundown to sunup.

The crowd demographic changes throughout the night; the elderly were the last ones standing at 4am.  The stage is carted in by donkey, usually a bundle of long bamboo sticks or skinny tree trunks that are strung together to create a surprisingly sturdy screen for 6 or 7 troupe members and can be viewed from 360 degrees.

When I saw my first performance, I greedily sat myself in front and center in what I thought was the best seat in the house.

Once the music started and the puppets were underway, it became clear that I was operating under a very Western understanding of ‘best seat in the house’.  The areas where you could watch the puppet show from backstage were being vied for like Justin Bieber’s autograph.  My moment of embarrassment was cut short by my desire to get back there.

To watch a shadow show from behind the screen!  It was better than Noises Off.  It was even better than finding out who that man behind the curtain was in Wizard of Oz. 

This was the most important element I wanted to incorporate in my work when I returned to the states; the simple experience of destroying the fourth wall and presenting the entire process of performance as the show itself.  Not a promenade show, not a show in-the-round, but a show in which all aspects of creating the performance are stage worthy and just as entertaining as what’s going on in the ‘front.’

While doing more historical reading this last month, I learned that in some regions, viewing traditional Chinese shadow puppet plays from the back wasn’t always encouraged.  There was a time when the masters didn’t want their secrets exposed – to keep the magic intact.  But recently, some had come to believe that the back had opened up to compete with other forms of entertainment.   So funny – I had assumed without questions that the way I was viewing it now was the way it has always been viewed.  I had forgotten all my other research about the evolutionary nature of a folk art – the change necessary for survival.  But, it also reminded me that change isn’t always for the worse.  At least, in my opinion.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, when the audience was lagging due to competing forms of entertainment, some masters came to believe the same things I do now – which is the beauty of live performance is making magic within the limitations: invisible budgets, bad acoustics, gravity, etc.  And perhaps there is also magic inherent in the cogs that make that magic happen.  To expose those cogs is to embrace and celebrate these limitations, making them precious and valued again.

Thanks for reading~

The Stuff We’re Made Of

After my last puppet hunt in Shanxi, I returned to Beijing and used my last week in China to eat my favorite foods, see my favorite people and take a trip to the bathhouse.

The week was more than surreal.  It was horrible and wonderful.  Ever since I had arrived, a part of me had looked forward to the end.  As with any adventure, it’s an experience of all colors, shapes, sizes and intensities.  Above all – it’s big.  I didn’t have a single day that could have been labeled as routine or mundane.  And, after 10 straight months of challenge and adventure, all I wanted was a non-challenge.  And oatmeal for 365 days in a row.

Still, how does one say goodbye to such a year?  Such an experience?  It seems silly to bookend it, and yet, when doing research abroad – one must.  It’s nearly impossible to bring it home with you.  The information is there, but the feeling is so elusive.

Bringing it home with me has been the hardest part of the transition.  Not the reverse culture shock.  Not the fact that people obey traffic laws or refrain from spitting on the sidewalk.  Not the relative isolation we Americans live in or the cleanliness.  Just simply that I can’t live in both these worlds at the same time.  They are, geographically and mentally, too far away from each other.  I am the single being that can connect my two realities, corroborate my own story and so far, it’s been clumsy at best.

I believe this only feeds into my mission: to create a bigger bridge, for myself and others, that merge these two realities: to introduce Chinese shadow puppetry to new fans and stewards around the world and celebrate with old ones.

I plan to continue this site as a general Chinese shadow puppet informational blog.  I will keep processing my own observations of the year, my own personal attempts to innovate or preserve the work and any return trips I make to China to continue my research.  The posts will slow, but my passion will not.

Thank you to anyone who read this blog and lent their attention throughout the year.  Chinese shadow puppetry and I, thank you!

A Few Big Thanks:

  • To the Fulbright program, for making this entire thing possible (and to the amazing support from the Beijing, NYC and DC Offices)
  • To my parents, who are the best cheerleaders (and blog editors) a girl could ask for
  • To all the shadow puppet artist in China, for showing me a generosity I had yet to experience and dedication that I hope to honor for years to come

The Pot of Gold – Part 2

(continued from previous blog – to read, click here.)

That night, I didn’t sleep much.  While everyone else in Shanxi is barely heating their homes, the Changchun hotel decided to keep our rooms at a balmy 78 degrees.   I was in paradise and I was anxious.  I finished my novel, caught up in my journal and paced around in my stocking-less feet (heaven for my thawing toes!).   The Ministry of Culture?  It sounded like a very intimidating group of people.  What if I couldn’t even get into the building?  Was my North Face outfit proper clothing for such a meeting?  What if I needed an appointment?  If I did, would I wait another day?  I already had a ticket to Beijing late tomorrow evening – my days of waiting had whittled away my precious time.

After listening to myself fret for hours, it was pretty obvious I really wanted their help.  I really, really wanted to find this troupe. Ostensibly, it was just another trip, but deep down it had come to mean something much more.  It felt like a mix of proving myself, paving the way for more true puppet hunts next time, showing Zhang Laoshi she couldn’t stop me from finding them and, most importantly, it would mean another shadow puppet troupe had survived.  The true puppet hunt was a self-imposed right of passage I’d given myself.  I knew it wasn’t my fault if I didn’t pass, but it didn’t stop me from wanting it.  Badly.

After rehearsing a multitude of possible introductions I’d give the Ministry tomorrow, finishing my novel and scribbling down a host of notes, I fell into a feverish sleep.  I awoke early the next morning and got myself good and ready.  By 8:15 am, I had eaten at the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet, packed and checked out.  I had 40 minutes before I could head over to the government building.  I spent most of it in the lobby pretending to be absorbed by their fish tanks.  Mostly, I was just counting down the seconds.

At exactly 8:55, I exited the lobby and headed just around the corner.  The government building in Xiaoyi follows the design directive from the rest of the government buildings in China: intimidating, impassable and humongous.  As I walked up the steps, I could feel a wave of calm sweep over me.  Either it was going to go or it wasn’t.  And I would know whether it wasn’t in just a few minutes.

I walked swiftly past the guards and into the elevator with what I hoped was a look of but-of-course-certainly-absolutely-I-know-where-I’m-going.    After I got off on the 8th floor, I looked around with caution.  None of the doors were labeled.  One end of the hall was dark, the other well lit.  A janitor was mopping just a few feet away.  Save her, the place seemed empty.  I quietly asked her if she knew where the Ministry of Culture office was.  She gave me a shrug and kept pushing her mop.  I headed to the first office with voices and peeked in.  They pointed me to room 830.  I walked slowly to the door, took a deep breath and gave a good rap.

I heard muffled voices, some chair squeaks and – it opened.   Just beyond my view of the door frame were four very nice looking people with confused but kind faces.  After the stun wore off, I blabbered through my intro and within minutes they had ushered me to ‘the guy’.

Without ceremony or questioning, he whipped out his cell phone and looked up someone’s name, wrote a few scribbles down and told me Bidu Village.  Only once did he look up and say ‘you’re really and American?’

I grabbed that piece of paper and left uttering my thanks profusely, perhaps subconsciously afraid that they’d revoke the precious information if I let them think about what they’d done for too long.   I had it!  In my hot little hands!  The treasure map!  X marked the spot!

I called the number and a raspy voice told me to “come on over”!

I walked swiftly to the edge of the road without thinking.  I hailed the first taxi and explained myself.  “I’d like to find a shadow puppet master in Bidu Village and talk to him for the day and then I’ve got to get to the train station”.   The luck that hadn’t been with me the three days prior was with me in full force today.  My taxi driver turned out to be an ever curious and funny fellow who was only too game to find a puppet master in Bidu.  He even knew where the village was.

We chatted like old friends for the half hour drive, my mind still a float.  After a few wrong and then right turns, we ended up on a snowy drive, lined by old round-roofed houses.  The mist over the surrounding fields was so heavy that for a moment, I was pretty sure we were the only place on earth.

From a distance, I could see a hunched figure dressed in navy.  The puppet master was waiting for us on the road and waved us down.  His smile could be seen from a long ways out.

After a jumble of introductions and shuffling in through the narrow doorway,

we sat on his Kang bed, all three of us, as he told us about his past as a shadow puppeteer.

Master Wu is the last of a long line of shadow and rod puppeteers.  In 1863, his great-great-great-great (that’s 7 generations) grandfather started a troupe in the small village of Bidu.  They enjoyed nearly a century of success until the Cultural Revolution hit.   Like many of the troupes around the country, the Wu’s were forced to burn their entire puppet stock to ensure no one was performing ‘unapproved’ shows.  Trunks and trunks of handmade puppets burned, decades of oral history up in smoke.

For forty years, Master Wu went back to farming full time.  But he never forgot his stories.  “How did you keep them?” I asked.  “Here” he said, pointing to his head and then his heart.

When Master Wu was allowed to practice again, he had to start from scratch.  And, instantly, he saw the audience had changed.   The troupe stopped performing locally about 10 years ago.

Luckily, in 2005, the small town of Xiaoyi added the then 69-year-old Master Wu to their payroll as a cultural steward.  He gives performances and teaches a bit, but mostly, this small salary allows him to live out his days with little hardship.   In the warm months, he travels to the nearby tourist town of Datong for tourist performances throughout the summer.

At some point, while my taxi hero and Master Wu were chatting amongst themselves, I had a moment.  The weight, the sheer weight, of the entire year in all its good-bad-big-amazingness, came swooping down and smacked me in the chest.   I smarted at the blow.

I had made it.  We had made it.  Shadow puppetry and I had made it through the year, together.  And here is where my rainbow ended.   After traveling for so long, it was incredible to feel like I had arrived somewhere even if it was a destination of my own creation.

We spent the rest of the day on the Kang bed, chatting the day away.

Thanks for reading~