At the Southwestern tip of China, they're one of a kind.
The Tengchong Shadow Troupe, Yunnan Province
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From our first meeting in fall, 2011.
My bus rides from Shangri-la, Yunnan lasted two full days. While the scenery was breathtaking and the sky visible to me for the first time in eight months, there was barely a single section of straight road lasting for more than a quarter mile. All of it driven along the mountain road bends that all Chinese bus drivers like to take with unrelenting speeds. Even with the pretty scenery, I was only too happy to arrive in Tengchong.
Tengchong is a city that lies so far west in Yunnan province that it’s almost Myanmar (Burma). You can tell it’s small by looking at a map of it; instead of a mind-numbing web of streets and endless ring roads, there are just a few main roads that carry you all the way from end to end. Their population is a mere five hundred thousand people, which in China standards could be a village. The city’s only tourist draw is a few scenic spots and natural volcanic hot springs. It was no surprise, then, to find that my hostel was kitty corner to the living quarters of the puppeteers I was going to meet.
I first met these Yunnan artists at the shadow puppet conference in Huanxian, Gansu this past September. I had toured the shadow puppet exhibitions before the conference opened and was excited to see Yunnan represented in a small corner of the space. I’d seen Yunnan puppets before in a few museums and if you’ve seen enough Chinese shadow puppetry, you know they’re the most unique of all the styles. They stand out in the shadow puppet crowd.
The designs aren’t necessarily the most agile or finessed, but they carry with them a certain command and boldness. They demand you look at them. I love the coarse lines and catching colors.
When I finally met the Yunnan cutters on the first day of the conference, the people themselves were unique, too. Soft spoken, earnest, and a bit shy; these guys also stand out in the puppeteer crowd. I liked them. I knew I had to visit.
Upon arrival in Tengchong, I was hit with a flurry of texts planning my visit. I woke early the next morning and started my work. Crossing the street and winding my way around the large complex, I found the puppeteers living quarters on the second floor of a non-descript apartment building not far from the performance space.
They are currently employed by a larger company to perform nightly shows in two beautifully designed restaurants that stand side by side in a small cultural shopping complex. These restaurants act as nighttime ‘cultural experiences’ for those traveling to the city for their famed hot springs and other sites. Part commercially supported and part governmentally supported, they’re booming with business.
The puppeteers spend their days rehearsing or fixing puppets, even tackling a few independent art projects and at sundown they perform. They start at one restaurant performing a more modern piece and follow it up with a slightly more traditional piece at the second. In both, hoards of Chinese tourists eat in a hurry and take in the show while they chat. It’s a comfy atmosphere and a friendly crowd. And while it’s certainly not traditional shadow puppetry, it’s performed well and beautiful to watch.
The next day I head past the cities edge to visit their idyllic home village. Here, is where they perform traditional shows for festivals in their well preserved town prayer hall and cut the puppets by hand in their courtyard homes. It is here I see the full picture. This younger generation is elegantly balancing the integrity of traditional forms with the necessity of pushing modernity. They ask me about Steve Jobs’ death (which I hadn’t even heard about while in the countryside of China) while milling corn from their fields.
In my initial days here, it was easy to see that this experience was different. Partially, it’s the puppets themselves. Mostly, it’s geography. My sense from both the conference and now is that they’re the underdog, the forgotten cousin, the black sheep. Most of the shadow puppet artists in the north have heard of them, but few have visited. They’re missing out. I’m quite sure I’ll find my way back here as soon as I am able
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