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Shadow Play: An Old Man's Wish for A Young Boy's Dream
Pan Tieli, already in his 60s, has always loved the shadow play and has tried his best to save it from extinction. He has collected rare materials from all over the country and has more than 1,000 shadow play puppets, dozens of books and videos along with audio material that provides a history of China’s shadow play tradition. Since it was launched over a year ago, his website has become increasingly popular.

At the eastern Gulou Street in Dongcheng District, a reporter visited Pan’s home early in April. It’s in the depth of a hutong (or alley) far from the noisy part of the city. On entering the enclosed courtyard, shadow play puppets are immediately visible on its broken doors and give the impression of entering into China’s historic past.

Just two days ago, he says, they were in Jiangsu Province looking for funding to keep his project going. It was not successful. They have come back to wait for new opportunities.

Some say that Pan’s crazy having such a strange hobby, while others say it must be the money which drives him.

Entering Pan’s home though there is nothing strange here except for the collection of shadow puppets, an old refrigerator and washing machine.

Compared to perceptions, he says, he is not rich and constantly seeks funding for his collection. “Now we haven’t enough money to maintain our website, let alone maintaining the shadow play,” he says sadly.

Hobby from childhood

Pan Tie li, who has just retired as a chemistry teacher, has cherished the love of the shadow play from a very young age. He still can remember the first shadow play he saw, Wu Song Fights the Tiger. “It’s very funny. From the white screen we could see the puppets looped and fighting. When Wu Song, the warrior, was bitten by the hurt but still living tiger, all the children exploded with laughter. From then on, the little shadow play cinema was such a huge magnet for me. I was like a demon possessed: all day I would stand watching them.”

Pan still remembers all the shadow plays he saw when he was young. “I can almost remember all of the plots from Monkey Subdues the White Bone Demon, Gods of Honor and The Three Brothers Fight Against Lu Bu. Sometimes they are like films that flash around in my mind.”

“Since I first learned drawing with my father, who was a very fine art teacher, I was not satisfied with merely watching. I began to make shadow play puppets myself. I had no leather then but used hard paper to replace it. I could make all the shadow play puppets like Wu song, the Monkey King, Pig Monk, Ne Zha and so on.”

At that time Pan not only learned how to make the puppets, but also began to collect things associated with the shadow play, like the matchbox pictures and posters. He still has seven vivid posters of classical shadow play puppets from that period.

Not surprisingly from the very first moment he saw the shadow play, he made a lifelong connection to it.

Collection and hardship

As an ancient folk art, shadow plays have a history of more than 2,000 years. It has been handed down through the generations until now because of its unique character, style, beautiful opera music, simple stage equipment and appealing performances. It is the very best of Chinese entertainment.

To face the realities of a decline in interest in the shadow play, Pan Tieli has often felt despondent. Whenever he recalls the flourishing shadow plays from his youth, he feels regret. What has made him worry is the shortage of people who have inherited an interest and skill in the ancient art as the old shadow play artists have died off. “If the precious art of the shadow play disappears, as a folk tradition, I’m afraid that traditional culture itself will begin to disappear.” He talks of a “new long march” way of saving the shadow play.

Actually Pan knows more than anyone that individual power is limited, “Somebody has to do it. I’ll try my best, but I need the help of others also.”

Early in the 1990s, in the summer and winter holidays, Pan went to Hebei, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and northeast areas of China to investigate different shadow play genres in different areas, and recorded old shadow play artists’ lives and performances in every detail. After his retirement, with the support of his wife, they bought video and audio recorders and began to collect, first-hand, material on the shadow play.

The Pans have suffered a lot collecting shadow play material. Most old shadow play artists live in remote districts, so they have had to endure all kinds of hardship on arduous roads, sometimes even being driven away by more secretive and conservative of the shadow play artists. “Actually these are not the most important of problems. The main problem is: as China is such a big country with so many people, sometimes we don’t even have a clue, but we still look. We enquire everywhere. Sometimes, with luck, we find a group of artists in sequence, and sometimes we can’t find anyone.”

Pan remembers how they once looked in the rain for several days for an old artist named Lian Zhenhua, in the Houma area of Shanxi Province. They found a person named Lian Zhenhua with difficultly, but in the end he was not the right one. They went on searching using a broken tricycle, their bones almost out of joint due to the bumps along the way. When they got to Lian Zhenhua’s home, he wasn’t in. They were tired and disappointed.

Where there is a will, there is a way and now Pan has collected more than 1,000 shadow play puppets, dozens of books and sets of video and audio materials, which have provided detailed material to China’s shadow play art.

The whole family helps

Pan maintains that the shadow play is in danger of extinction, mostly because of a lack of knowledge about it from the public: some people don’t even know what a shadow play is. So the motive for collecting material is to make people get to know it, then, to love it.

In June 2001, Pan retired. With his spare time he does things he likes, and begins to think about his project. He hits on the Internet as of the greatest advantage to him in terms of speed and convenience as it can contain pictures as well as articles. Since his son works in software development, he decides to make a website on the shadow play. He says that it’s been unexpectedly successful and the website has been in operation since 2002. The website URL is http://www.chineseshadow.com

The website has eight pages of introductions to the Chinese shadow play, the shadow play museum, the windows of the shadow play, the shadow play theatre, playing shadow play and the communication center. It introduces the history and reality of the Chinese shadow play in detail, and shows the magic of the shadow play. In the playing shadow play web page, they introduce the shadow play’s production and performances. In the shadow play theatre, you can enjoy the famous shadow plays, such as the folk love stories and the Chinese traditional fable stories. Another web page, shadow play games, is now under construction.

Pan has also given shadow play lectures to colleges and universities. And carried on the architecture and decoration design of shadow play puppets.

He says to make the website better all the members of his family take part. Pan collects and classifies the material, his son designs and maintains the website, and his wife does some important things also. “We always work until late at night, sometimes we don’t sleep till 3 in the morning. Since I always watch how my son does it, I learn how to maintain the website by myself,” Peng Lanzhen, Pan’s wife says.

“It’s an unusual site to the normal net user. Shortly after we began operation, there was a surge of interest in it. Our hit rate is about 2,000 to 3,000 per month.”

Meanwhile, he gets plenty of feedback. “Some friends made pertinent suggestions; the Central Finance and Economics University invited me to lecturer there last October, where one old gentleman remarked that he remembered his happy childhood when he saw the shadow plays on the website.”

Innovate and renew

Pan Tieli maintains that to save folk art forms, including the shadow play, except the innovation of the folk art itself, an effective market operating mechanism is needed. “Folk art can’t be just folk anymore, it needs to be popular art too.”

Pan Tieli still has other ideas, “Alone, the website can’t save the shadow play tradition. The most important thing is to make the shadow play appear better and better in the audience’s eyes.” Except to organize the shadow play troupe performances in Beijing as a business, he also wants to construct a shadow play troupe to perform in schools, factories and other institutions in order to promote it.

Pan summarizes the ten pleasures of playing with the shadow play by saying that it needs to be promoted as a new game concept. He wants to turn schools into windows of popularity for the shadow play. He not only performs in schools but also teaches students how to make shadow play puppets and play its games. And he wants to design presents connected to it for retail e-business, and to publish shadow play books.

“I just want to try doing it, but I can’t guarantee its success just yet. To solve the problems of the shadow play, the problems of other folk arts may be solved too,” he says.

Easier said than done. “The funding is the greatest problem. The journey to collect material in these last years cost us everything and now we have to depend on our pensions. It’s difficult to maintain the website, let alone the new items which need startup funds,” Pan said.

“However, we’ll never give up; overall there are always some friends in the same situation. We’ll get together. Then it’ll be like the springtime of the Chinese shadow play,” Pan says emphatically.

(China.org.cn by Chen Lin May 7, 2003)

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