As humble as he is talented, Gao Qingwang is a Nationally recongnized Chinese shadow puppet-making master.
Master Gao Qingwang, Gansu Province
From our first meeting in summer of 2014.
I first meet Gao Qingwang in the summer of 2014 on a research trip to find more cutting masters. I'd been to Gansu Province before, but wanted to go back to learn more.
Upon arrival, hot and sweaty and tired from the 8 hour bus from Xi'an, I hit the known areas, letting everyone know what and who I am looking for. Within a day or so, a local shadow puppet entrepreneur leads me to Master Gao - unsuspectingly lugging water buckets back to his barracks. With a quick smile and warm welcome, we agree to begin some puppet making lessons the very next day. I can hardly wait.
The next morning, Master Gao is already at work when I arrive at 8 sharp. Without ceremony, Master Gao retrieves a piece of leather he was working on, his tools and sits me 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.
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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.
I come every morning for a few weeks and learn all aspects to the trade. This set up may seem like a normal apprenticeshp 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.
We end the first 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.
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