Pulling the strings

Updated 2018-02-27 08:39:01

An exhibit of a puppet show on stage.

An exhibition in Beijing features more than 300 puppets made by members of the Xu family from Zhangzhou through seven generations.

For more than two centuries, the Xu family in Zhangzhou, East China's Fujian province, have been passing down one skill - carving a variety of faces on small pieces of camphor wood.

These heads are then added to limbs, and the complete pieces are then dressed up in delicately woven outfits.

The pieces are called glove puppets. And they are widely used in traditional opera orchestras.

Puppet shows have been around in Zhangzhou for more than 1,000 years.

Xu Zhuchu, now 80 and a sixth-generation master craftsman from the Xu family, is like his ancestors as a devoted fan and practitioner of this time-honored art.

One of his ancestors, Xu Ziqing (1768-1858) opened the family's first studio in 1807.

Xu Zhuchu says the sounds he heard most when growing up were of carving knives cutting wood.

The silent wooden dolls were his best friends in childhood, and constant reminders of the family business he was to inherit.

When he was at the opening of a grand exhibition of the Xu family puppet art earlier this month in Beijing, Xu Zhuchu seldom spoke but mostly, gazed smilingly at the works his family has produced.

His son, Xu Qiang, 53, the family's seventh-generation craftsman, did most of the talking.

"I'm getting old," Xu Zhuchu says. "I want to spend more time being with and talking to them (the puppets)."

The exhibition, titled Craftsmanship, at the National Museum of China, features more than 300 puppets made by members of the Xu family through seven generations, including Xu Zhuchu, a State expert of intangible cultural heritage and Xu Qiang.

Xu Zhuchu became a full-time artisan after completing his middle school education. Over more than six decades, he has changed puppet-making, so the puppets are not just the stars of a live show but also, eye-arresting pieces of art widely displayed at home museums and abroad.

The puppet figurine is among the exhibits of an ongoing show at the National Museum of China that features more than 300 puppets made by members of the Xu family from Zhangzhou, East China's Fujian province.

For a long time, puppets were made about 20 centimeters tall, which suited small, street theaters. But Xu Zhuchu makes them between 30 and 50 cm, so that people can have a better view of the details.

Meanwhile, as traditional puppet shows move to bigger stages and even films, bigger puppets are a must.

When Xu Zhuchu took over the family studio, he inherited a repertoire of around 100 puppet characters including fairies and ghosts. Through the years, he has enriched the trove to between 500 and 600 characters.

Old-time artisans could hardly live on making puppets. They had to supplement their incomes with sculpting Buddhist figures for temples and making toys, as well as painting temple walls and applying lacquer to furniture.

And artisans incorporated the visual elements they saw in temples and on classic furniture into puppetry.

Xu Zhuchu has taken this a step further by creating new characters, after being inspired by other categories of traditional arts and crafts. To gain inspiration, he frequently visits markets and fairs where he sets up stands to sell puppets and toys.

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