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Weinan's last puppeteers


Updated: 2017-02-28

Popular CCTV contest The Biggest Brain has shined a spotlight on the ancient Chinese art of shadow puppetry, and at the same time showcased the talents of 10 elderly masters.

In shadow play, the puppets are held behind a backlit white scrim and are moved and manipulated in time to music, usually to tell classic stories and historical tales. The art form’s history stretches back more than 2,000 years, and was honored as a national intangible heritage in 2011.

The team featured on The Biggest Brain, a talent show to find China’s brightest intellects, hailed from Weinan in Shaanxi province – the birthplace of shadow puppetry.

Though the city has a rich history with the art form, today Weinan has just one shadow puppetry troupe, consisting of 10 members who have an average age of 71.

Led by Lu Chongde, the troupe performs daily for tourists. Each performance is as much for entertainment as it is an overwhelming need to preserve the art in its homeland, in the hope of attracting new blood.

Lu began his apprenticeship in the 1960s at the age of 20, against the will of his family who believed that the profession carried little promise.

First learning the ropes, Lu started as a puppet master’s assistant, and in the following years he became a musician for a theater group, mastering four classical instruments and fine tuning his singing.

“Over the years, I have committed over 50 scripts to memory, as well as 20 music books,” says Lu.

Shadow puppetry has fallen into decline in recent years, and is nothing like it was in its heyday during the Republic of China, when Weinan was home to 48 troupes and 200 to 300 performers.

After the opening-up and revolution, the popularity of shadow puppetry remained strong. “The bustling scene is still in my mind, we would play at festivals and on numerous occasions.”

Lu believes that because of the prevalence of more modern entertainment, such as TV and cinema, and because of the intricate dialects used in the plays, shadow puppetry is struggling to find new people to carry on the tradition.

“Because our craft carries little prestige today and adding to that we don’t earn very much, young people show little interest in getting involved,” says Zhao Bin, a member of Lu’s team.

Due to the nature of the art form, which takes years and years to master, shadow puppetry is not an easy job for any newcomer to take up. Every new talent must first memorize tens of screenplays, master at least three instruments and hone exceptional singing skills before they can take to the stage.

“The difficulty scares many people from stepping in, what’s worse, due to the limited performance market, our students often switch to other jobs for a variety of reasons,” says Lu.

Lu hopes that media attention, thanks to appearing on popular TV shows such as The Biggest Brain, might lure some new talent to the scrim.

The master puppeteer is not alone in his desire to rekindle puppetry’s popularity. Initiatives have been put in place by various government departments and privately-run cooperatives to rejuvenate puppetry in Weinan. Intangible cultural heritage tours, workshops, performances, and a stronger link-up with local tourism are to be rolled out in the near future.

The government hopes that through the good works of master’s such as Lu, combined with its own initiatives, Lu’s elderly 10-man puppetry team will soon have some young apprentices.

Weinan's last puppeteers

Elderly artists share their passion for shadow puppetry in Weinan, Northwest China’s Shaanxi province. [Photo/ Shaanxi Daily]

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