One of the last true family operations, this multi-generational home is still making masterful traditional puppets.
The Lu Family, Hebei Province
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From our first meeting in summer, 2011.
My trip to Tangshan was preceded by much anticipation. I had been connected to Tianxiang, the son of a Hebei province cutting master, through Simon in Hong Kong. I sent him an email in my first couple of weeks on the mainland and since then we’ve been talking regularly over the phone, email and even in person to plan the trip. Tianxiang’s enthusiasm at my interest was both encouraging and disarming. This trip could go very well or go very wrong.
The bus trip to Tangshan was adventure enough; complete with a bus station that’s actually two men under umbrellas in a back alley near the Beijing train station, to being dropped at another random Beijing parking lot to wait an hour for the ‘real’ bus to come. If I hadn’t been traveling in China for a while now, I’d take this as a bad omen. Instead, I took it as a reminder to just let it happen.
Within just a few days, I had learned every step in the traditional Northeastern puppet making process: cowhide preparation, cowhide scraping, making wax cutting boards, making hand knives, Tangshan cutting technique, painting, lacquering, and framing techniques. Incredibly, this family does everything themselves within their small house except raise the cows.
When I arrived in Tangshan, Tianxiang was waiting for me. Within an hour we had ridden the city bus to ‘check in’ at a boarding room in the city and then onto a long bus ride back out of the city to his house. We chatted as we had before, with broken Chinese and English and with the ease of old friends.
The bus dumped us in the middle of nowhere. China nowhere. We stood in the middle of a quarter mile stretch of mini shops diverse enough to fulfill the needs of single town. As he led me towards his house, the shops became scattered and the street became noticeably quieter. A left turn onto a dirt road and din fades completely. In a few minutes we were out in it, there are just fields and people here. One level brick houses, small kitchen gardens in every possible planting surface, self made garbage dumps, mangy dogs, squatting clusters of friends taking a break, and that sound the breeze makes as it makes its way through nature.
As we stepped through the front door of the simple brick wall of their courtyard, I was greeted first by his mother and then by his father.
Once the warm handshakes and awkward laughter was exchanged, I had a chance to look around. Tools for any kind of project, material odds and ends, small garden patches, a water pump, sharpening stones, etc lay waiting in every corner of the courtyard. It was going to be a busy week.
My first night was spent simply getting my first look at Tangshan cutting style. Tianxiang’s earnestness manifested itself into thorough teaching, meticulous planning and a full learning experience from beginning to end.
I returned to the countryside early the next morning. Already, Papa Lu was busy at work, creating the frame for my new wax board out of old scraps of wood. Mama Xu was busy painting the cut pieces of cowhide inside.
The day proceeded slowly and with purpose. We would work, patiently, and then stop for a slice of watermelon in the intense summer heat or to talk with the neighbors who rotated in and out throughout the day.
By midday, we had finished the wax board, set up a soaked cowhide on frame, and sharpened the scraping tools. After a hearty lunch we set ourselves back upon the hide. Scraping, turning, wetting, scraping some more, wetting and scraping even more. My novice hands were blistered by the second turn.
By 6 pm, we broke for dinner preparation. Always a spread of simple vegetables, small portions of meat and a large helping of rice, noodles or corn soup.
It was lovely to sit with a family for dinner. Looking around at their similar faces and hearing their familiar patterns of communication, I realized that I hadn’t been in a real family setting for over 4 months. My family is back in Minnesota, and while we stay connected through skype, google voice, postcards and email, there’s nothing quite like sitting down to a family meal.
I breathed a secret sigh of relief and another one of gratitude. Doing field work, you’re never sure where you’re going to end up. You prepare, research and hope and then you let it happen. Some experiences are more fruitful then others, some not at all and then there are these. Everything you needed to learn and much more.
The week proceeded much the same way as the first day; long 12 hour days of learning, sprinkled with great meals, too much sun and some great guidance on how to kill flies.
Their involvement in shadow puppetry started when Master Lu was a young boy. Back then it was common practice to use shadow play as a learning tool in the countryside classrooms. As elementary school students, many of them learned to cut simple puppets from paper and act out popular plays. From that experience, Master Lu was hooked. As he grew older he aspired to make this a career and began the search for a Master. Once found, the young Master Lu studied with Master Wang long enough to begin work on his own. Historically, Masters only pass skills down through the bloodline and up until recently, only from father to son. Master Lu had to search for years to find a childless Master who was willing to share his secrets to someone of a different surname.
When he married Yishu in 1979, she was folded into the process, learning to paint puppets after Master Lu cut them. The two of them have used shadow puppetry as supplementary income to farming since their marriage. In the winter, when other farmers are processing spices or cotton, the two of them are cutting and painting puppets in their workroom. Shadow puppetry even helped them through a hard few years when Master Lu was battling health issues that kept him from the field.
But while shadow puppetry has seen them through some hard times, it’s also been a great source of hardship and loss. They have personally felt the repercussions of shadow puppetry’s inconsistent popularity and slow fade in the last half century and even now, their future seems tenuous. As machine made shadow puppets start to flood the market, the market for hand made shadow puppets is smaller and smaller. And as China continues to develop at alarming rates, so does the demise of their folk arts.
Knowing that shadow puppetry is perhaps a risky future, they stressed education for their two children. As their son, Tianxiang, approached high school graduation, he expressed his desire to continue onto college but there was no money. His father suggested he learn to cut shadow puppets to earn tuition money and he did just that. Cutting for a few years and leaving shortly thereafter for a 3 year program in computer tech.
After graduation, he began working in the city at a small computer tech firm and stopped cutting puppets until he saw an interview his father did for the local television station about his work. It was here, for the first time, that he learned his father’s story. When I asked him why his father hadn’t told him before he said his father had always answered probing questions with “Mei shenma he shou.” There’s nothing to tell. ”Probably”, says Tianxiang, “because they were too hard to tell.”
After seeing his father’s interview and understanding fully what shadow puppetry had meant for his family, Tianxiang understood puppetry in a different way. It wasn’t just a job his parents took up to make money, but rather the embodiment of personal dreams and his country’s identity. He has taken it up with gusto; cutting puppets before and after his job in the city and spending his precious free time keeping his family active within the larger shadow puppet community.
On my second to last day, Tianxiang took me around the city of Tangshan in search of anything and everything puppet related. Most locations had closed or moved and by the fifth stop we were both tired and deflated. We agreed to try one more destination before going back; the Tangshan Provincial Museum. When we arrived, the parking lot was empty and a lone guard stood in front of the door. I prepared for the worst. After a bit of discussion, we found out that the building was under-renovation and not open to the public. We could, of course, go in if we knew someone who knew someone in museum administration and could come right now to escort us in. I was ready to give up, but Tianxiang in his characteristic perseverance got on his phone and started calling. Within 30 minutes, we were being escorted in and all of us were like kids in a candy store. I was impressed with the museum, but more impressed with the passion and energy Tianxiang gives puppetry and those who wish to learn it.
As we walked to the edge of the dirt road on my last night, I thanked him for the umpteenth time. Indeed, my gratitude felt so impossible to express that I just kept repeating it. “If it weren’t for you, Tianxiang, I never would have been able to find your family or learn from you all”. “You are wrong”, he said “it’s really shadow puppetry that has brought us together. How else would you and I have found each other from other sides of the world? We have shadow puppetry to thank.”
He is right, of course.
Thank you, shadow puppetry.
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