Shadow puppetry has a long history in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Many people, especially the young, have heard of it, but few of them have actually walked into the theater to watch. Today we continue our National Day Special YOUNG CHINA with the struggle of a 26-year-old shadow puppetry artist.
The art form has existed for more than 1,500 years. But despite new designs and elements, it’s having trouble attracting audiences and a new generation of performers.
A look behind the screen shows the puppeteers are all in their mid-20s. They were hired by a local folk art company four years ago. And to their surprise, they fell in love with shadow puppetry. Li Zi is the team leader.
Li Zi said, "First of all, I like it very much. Second, thanks to shadow puppetry, I’ve made many good friends who care a lot about me. Third, the media attention has put me in a position where I cannot easily give up or I’d feel like I’ve let people down."
Media attention began to grow with their performance at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. The exposure gave them confidence.
Last year, they left the company over late payment.
Li’s friends found better-paid jobs in other areas. They still meet sometimes to rehearse for paid performances at occasions like weddings. But it’s not enough. So Li does other part-time jobs as well.
The older generation of artists encourages Li Zi to hold on to his dream.
Xue Xiaocui, a master shadow puppet maker, said, "Li Zi has got great potential. It would be a pity for the industry if he doesn’t work on this. Sometimes I call to tell him to stick to doing what he likes."
However, the 80’s generation in China has to balance between traditional family responsibilities and their own dreams.
Li Zi said, "Most young people nowadays are the only child in their families. In a sense, my life is not mine only. I can’t guarantee that I’ll do this all my life in the face of difficulties ahead. I’m 26 and I need to consider things like marriage and money."
While pulled in several directions, for now, Li Zi is trying to keep the art alive. He studies traditional plays, writes new ones, and seeks funding. He wants to take the performances to the classroom and other places, with new plays that appeal to modern audiences.
When asked what shadow puppetry means to him, Li compares it to one’s first love.
Li Zi said, "My first job is performing shadow puppet plays and I think it’s beautiful. I feel like I can hold on to it and never let it go. That’s my ideal. I’m afraid that I’d regret it, feel bad and miss it if I were to give it up."
Li Zi has thrown himself into his passion while he’s young. With the help of other artists, he hopes to carve out a future for the traditional art, and for himself as well.