To his neighbors in Panjiayuan village, Huaxian County, Pan Jingle is first of all an elderly farmer who lives with his youngest son's family and mainly earns a living by farming a 0.25-hectare plot.
But Pan is also a shadow puppet play master from a village not far from Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province. At 75 years of age Pan has won the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people at home and abroad, who have watched his superb shows and are fascinated with the mysterious Chinese folk art.
Last autumn, we paid a visit to Pan who was busy performing for a local audience during Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, which fell on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.
At first sight, Pan looks no different from any other time-weathered farmer in Shaanxi.
He has a strong build, a darkish face due to exposure to a scorching sun in the fields and is fond of squatting with a big bowl of noodles seasoned with a lot of hot pepper and vinegar.
He often wears a worn-hat with a line on the back that reads "95 Taiwan International Puppet Art Festival."
But when he stages a puppet show with four other members of his Guang Yi She (Lights and Shadows Puppet Art Troupe), which he established in the early 1950s, he becomes a well-respected artist with a huge following.
In 1975, Guang Yi She made a successful Beijing debut and was first featured in 1976 in a documentary entitled "The Shadow Puppet Art Squad," which was produced by the Shanghai Film Studio.
In 1984, a TV special was made on the performances of Pan's art troupe by Xi'an TV Station and was later broadcast in Taiwan, the troupe's first appearance outside the Chinese mainland.
During October's Mid-Autumn Festival, Pan was invited to perform at a birthday party in the nearby Taitai Village, which is situated on the Weihe River, a tributary of the Yellow River.
The sun had hardly gone down when a large crowd gathered in front of the make-shift stage, which was constructed with cotton quilts, desks, chairs, wooden poles and boards.
A white bed sheet was hung above the stage for the puppet play, the leather puppets were hidden behind the sheet, their shadows acting out ancient legends, sagas, love stories and folk tales.
Also hung overhead were thermos filled with boiling water, prepared for the performers who, when fully occupied by their job, would find no time to go backstage to drink.
After the host made a keynote speech, the shadow play began in the light of the shining full moon. There were several traditional programs featuring either wuxi, which lays emphasis on action and martial arts stunts, and wenxi, which mainly appeals to the audience because of its rhythmical lines and beautiful music.
Pan played "Qiansheng," a pivotal role in his art troupe, similar to the lead singer of a band. While another troupe member plays the role of "Qianshou'er, manipulating the puppets, a third member plays the role of "Shangdang," managing the instruments such as the two-stringed plucked yueqin and the bronze wind instrument suona. A fourth teammate takes up the role of "Xiadang," playing the bowed stringed instrument banhu and some other instruments. The fifth member assumes the role of "Houcao," taking care of backstage chores for the whole troupe.
China's art of shadow puppet play was widely considered to have originated in the area of today's Shaanxi Province with a history of at least 2,000 years and reached its first pinnacle during the first half of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), historical records show.
Puppet play is now popular in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Fujian, Sichuan and Qinghai, as well as some Southeast Asian countries.
Pan's performance belongs to the Donglu (eastern route) School of the art in Shaanxi, characterized by delicate, refined, textured singing sessions and heavily-painted puppet images with strongly contrasting colors such as bright green, red, yellow, white and deep black.
In the past, puppet shadows were created with the use of the dim, swaying and sometimes fleeting light from a burning oil lamp, but now are made with the strong, straight light of an electric bulb while the puppeteers operate swiftly.
Pan said despite the development, performing with the light from a burning oil lamp created a better spectacle as it gave a dreamy, eerie atmosphere.
Pan has long been regarded as the rarely heard "silver voice" of the local art genre.
He does all the narration and singing during a performance, maneuvering his voice to help portray the widely different roles such as a mild-tempered young man, a flirting young lady, a loud-spoken military general or a naughty child, to the accompaniment of the simple instruments.
Pan often drinks strong liquor when the performance comes to a climax or a particularly sad passage, which seems to add to the strength of his powerful singing, local audiences say.
Before the autumn show, Pan and his men were treated, along with other guests, to a big feast. After the show, Pan split the pay equally among each member of the troupe.
Over the past 60 years, Pan and his troupe have staged at least 8,000 performances in hundreds of neighboring villages and many parts of China. They have also performed in at least 20 countries and regions.
"I've never imagined that my performances would have become known to so many people," said Pan after the show. "When I first started in the art of shadow puppet as a teenager, that was the only means by which I could earn a better living besides working in the fields with my father, who was also an avid fan of the folk art."
Pan learned the art from his master Liu Dewa for only one year, but grasped all of his tricks and flashed to local stardom within a month.
In his early years as an artist, Pan also sought an apprenticeship with master performers from different schools in Shaanxi Province, including the well-known Song Wensheng, Yan Shouzhen and Liu Tongyuan.
Pan, now respected as an all-round shadow puppet master who knows all of the skills needed, has done a lot in maintaining the centuries old performing art.
During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), he risked his life hiding the hand-copied manuscripts of 200-plus traditional shadow puppet plays, which were handed down to him from ancient times.
He was also bold enough to adopt modern drama and some then popular "Model Peking Opera" works such as Taking the Tiger Mountain by Strategy into his favorite shadow puppet shows, but with extra plots and stunts. Pan not only performs, but also designs and cuts the bull leather puppets.
The making of a fine puppet takes at least 20 steps starting from processing the leather and drafting the images to adding resilient and flexible joints.
Things are changing fast for Pan and his troupe as people now have many avenues of entertainment.
Pan has a big family, but few of his children are interested in the folk art that is attracting smaller audiences.
"If things go like this, I bet the art of shadow puppet play as I know it will die in about 10 years," Pan said.
When asked about the prospect of his youngest son Pan Liang, who is good at creating pretty shadow puppets, as a shadow puppet artist, Pan said he lacked the right sort of voice.
But much to his delight, Pan has found that his grandson Pan Yihan, although 6, has already fallen in love with the folk art.
The Chinese version of the article and photos first appeared in the December issue of the monthly pictorial magazine Huaxia Cultural Geography.
(China Daily February 12, 2003)