Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil

The Harvard Ed Portal near me hosts several events, and yesterday’s was “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band” (there is a YouTube clip of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band here (that family has been doing this for eleven generations!), and an NPR clip of Wu Man here; there is also a disc they were selling at this event titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, available as a disc and for streaming, YouTube trailer here — more on this disc later, and its accompanying school lesson-plan material, which prompted this post). The event was, in several ways, both eye-opening and beautiful (alien in its tones and stories and some of the conventions of singing; familiar in its musical similarity to Blues and the visual similarity of the puppets to certain Late Antique Anglo-Saxon and Celtic knotwork illuminated manuscript conventions; moving all around).

I loved the show, the performers seemed like wonderful people, and they were very gracious in fielding our questions. I was sad to hear that there were fewer than thirty people left in China who knew this trade — the performers told me that they were 12 when they made their first puppet (out of cow skin, via a rigorous process), and 20 when they could manipulate the flat figures, which each have three poles to move the many parts, with one hand only (to see what I’m talking about, expand this post by clicking “continue reading” below, then look at the image on the header of the expanded post). The younger generations want to leave the villages, want lucrative careers, just want to watch cartoons — though they flock to the performances when they’re held. Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the cultural value of this profession, and supports the mission of these puppeteers (similar to how Irish Gaelic survives in the state-sponsored Gaeltachtaí).

On my way out the door, however, I was dismayed to find that an American product was being pushed at the door that, despite its best intentions, was not only smugly imperialist in its self-assured nihilism but insulting to the richness of the Chinese tradition, and its clear apprehension that value is real, and insulting to the Western European tradition, which has also traditionally recognized that what is worth pursuing is worth pursuing because of its inherent worthiness. Continue reading