Shadow Puppets in Xi'an

Doris and I had so many unique adventures in China. The shadow puppet play is one of the highlights. It only lasted for fifteen minutes. Yet it’s one of those memories that we’ll have for our whole lives.

Our amazing guide Xing had given us two full and wonderful days. I’ll be talking about those adventures in future posts. We were having lunch in a noodle shop in the Muslim Quarter. The front was open to the street while the restaurant area went far, far back into the building. It was hot, crowded, noisy. We started with spicy kebabs cooked on long, thin wires. The noodles came in a bowl of steaming soup. This being the Muslim Quarter, there was no pork; only beef and chicken. We slurped the noodles with chopsticks and drank the soup from the bowl after it had cooled down. I knew that would fill me up until breakfast the next morning in Beijing.

Xing was watching the time. The airport is a long way from Xi’an itself, about a 45 minute ride. She did a quick calculation and decided that we about an hour and a half left before we had to meet our car and driver. Would we like to do something special, like see a shadow puppet show?

The more Xing described it, the more interested Doris and I became. Shadow puppets were a centuries old art form in China. The puppet theater was only a short walk away. The show would only take fifteen minutes. “Let’s go!” we said.

Doris and I followed Xing to a fourteenth century stone house. A gate opened onto the street. The house itself was built around a courtyard. It was a gift from the Ming emperor to an honored mandarin. We bought our tickets and walked inside. The puppeteer and two musicians were playing cards at a table. They put down the cards and welcomed us in. We took our seats.

The puppeteer, a smiling young woman, took her place behind the screen lighted from the back by an electric light. The two musicians sat on either side of the stage. The percussionist sat on the left behind a kit consisting of numerous drums, bells, and gongs. The other member of the orchestra sat on the right. He played a two-stringed Chinese fiddle. I wish I knew what it was called. It was fascinating to watch him play. The bow moved between the two strings, not over them. He fretted the notes with long, metal finger guards placed over his fingers. Being a banjo picker, they naturally reminded me of banjo picks on steroids!

Xing explained the story we were about to see. In Old China, a young man did not see his bride until the day of the wedding. The young man in this story wanted to have an earlier look at the girl he was to marry. He disguised himself as a peddler. With two baskets of goods swinging from yoke over his shoulders, he set out for her house. She came out to haggle with him. The couple argued back and forth. Finally, they agreed on a price. But then the young peddler complained that her money was counterfeit. They argued some more. She finally went back inside, disgusted with the peddler. The young man continued on his way, singing happily that he had met his beautiful bride.

The puppeteer behind the screen manipulated the puppets with such skill that they seemed alive. We saw the baskets swinging as the young man walked along. The young woman shook her finger at the annoying peddler. I could swear I saw the expression on her face changing.

The puppeteer’s job was to move the puppets. All the dialog was provided by the fiddler. He played and sang in a falsetto voice, taking the parts of both characters while the percussionist added drum, bell, and gong for effect.

Xing explained that the fiddler was singing in the local dialect of Shaanxi province, not the Mandarin dialect of Beijing. Needless to say, I couldn’t understand a word. And yet I did. Just knowing the story and watching the characters let me imagine what they were saying. We laughed out loud at the funny parts. I had to smile as the bold young man walked on at the end, having accomplished his mission.

I found myself wiping tears away from my eyes. This little play in a tiny theater off a winding street was as wonderful as some full-dress Broadway shows that I’ve seen. How old was this play? Hundreds of years at least. Yet I could see it fading. Who wants to watch shadow puppets in an era of computer games and dvd’s? Who wants to spend years learning these arts when there’s money to be made in a modern, bustling China?

The puppeteers came off the stage to talk with us about the performance. Xing translated. They let us look at the puppets they had used, and at a display of others that covered the whole wall. A lot of artistry goes into making them. We learned that the puppets are either made of ox or donkey skin. A puppet made of ox skin can last for a hundred years. Donkey skin is more delicate. It doesn’t last as long. However, it is better suited for finer, more detailed cutting. The puppeteers showed us the knives and punches they use to create the puppets. Many are painted with delicate colors. There’s no comparing these with the ones sold in the tourist shops on the street. Those are made of plastic. Okay for a souvenir, but not up to performance standards.

Here are some pictures.

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