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Pulling the strings on history
LAIXI puppetry dates back more than 2,000 years. Tan Weiyun talks to a man who has devoted most of his life to the art that has seen its share of ups and downs. But despite some tough times, the puppeteer says he will never give up.
Ni Fengxian pedals his old, creaking bike to a studio on Yantai Road in Qingdao every morning.
"It's not my job; It's my dream, my whole life," the Qingdao-native says.
Ni's Laixi Puppetry Art Group, established in 2009, comprises 18 amateur puppeteers. Ni is the fourth generation of his family to take up this ancient puppetry form, which dates back more than 2,000 years.
"This art skill was passed down from my great grandfather. I can't let this link break off in my hand," the 74-year-old man says, sitting by a row of colorful puppets he created.
Laixi puppetry, listed as one of the country's intangible cultural heritages, is the origin of puppetry in China. It was created during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). Archeologists discovered a 193-centimeter life-sized puppet and a series of small puppets during an excavation project in 1978 at a Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) royal tomb in Laixi, Qingdao City, Shandong Province.
Ni started to design and make puppets when he was about 12 years old. Taught by his uncle, he also started to perform puppet plays at that time.
"It was in the 1870s that my great grandfather escaped to Qingdao from a famine and civil war. He then played puppet shows for a living," Ni says.
The skill was passed down to his grandfather, then his uncle and finally to Ni in 1954.
That year, the villagers raised about 2,000 yuan (US$317) to set up a puppet troupe. The troupe soon became popular in the city; Ni and his fellow puppeteers became big stars overnight.
However, the good days were short lived. In 1958, the "Great Leap Forward" movement (Mao Zedong's failed attempt from 1958 to 1960 to modernize the country's economy) took place. During this period artists were despised, and becoming a worker at a factory was something the whole family could be proud about.
"The puppets were burned; puppet's clothes were stripped off and given to children. With nothing left, I left," Ni says.
During the following five decades, the man traveled around Shandong with the puppets he made and gave sporadic shows here and there. "Life is hard for me, but I never give up," he says.
In 2006, when experts from the nation's Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee found him, the old man was a trumpeter in a village band, giving performances at folk weddings and funerals.
Among the puppets Ni makes, the biggest one is 1-meter-high and weighs 2 kilograms. It is the "lead actress" in the traditional puppet show "The Little Auntie."
"It's a marvelous mechanism that includes numerous gears and apparatus in almost every joint," the old man says proudly, nimbly manipulating the puppets hands.
Although Ni still remembers the lyrics and lines from "The Little Auntie," he hums now as his voice is too hoarse. "I'm too old to sing," Ni says.
In 2010, the art troupe moved from his shabby home to a spacious studio on Yantai Road with the help of Jiang Yutao, a computer subcontractor and a big fan of this ancient puppetry. Jiang offered them the studio and helped organize the puppet troupe's premiere after its establishment.
"To be frank, the first show was not successful. The performers were nervous and the audience knew nothing about puppetry; they were just curious," Ni says.
The troupe's 18 amateur puppeteers are mostly young women, including waitresses, clothes shop owners and art teachers. They don't earn anything from the troupe, but they share a common passion for this ancient folk art.
Each year Ni travels to Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, where he lives and works with artists there for a few days to learn how to make puppets and improve performing skills.
"It has been quite an eye-opening experience for me," he says. "Though Laixi puppetry is the oldest in China, it's not the best. We've been left far behind by Yangzhou puppetry. Those puppets are more complicated and delicate with more techniques. Even a hand has dozens of gimmicks."
He encourages his students to innovate. Their latest show "Snow White," adapted from the famous fairy tale, has proven popular with thousands of children since its debut last year.
They also successfully made a puppet hold a glass of wine and added the art of face-changing, a Sichuan opera artistic performance, to their puppet show.
"The long journey starts with the first step. I'm taking the first step now, though I know it's still a long way ahead," Ni says. "But I believe one day Laixi puppetry will regain its glory and be known to every Chinese."