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We’re excited to have Grant Hayter-Menzies, author of Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton, as today’s guest blogger.
This past summer, I was presented with a collection of antique shadow figures, painted parchment veterans of performances in China from some seventy years ago. The collection was chosen for me by its owner, Cui Yongping, a master of the Beijing Shadow Troupe and owner of the Cui Yongping Shadow Art Museum, who died in Beijing in May 2013.
I had first met him and his wife, Wang Shuqin, in New York City in 2011. I interviewed them for Shadow Woman, my biography of Pauline Benton, the Kansas-born shadow master whose collection of shadow figures is in the care of Chinese Theatre Works in Queens.
Mr Cui and Ms Wang were in New York not only because their son and his family live there, but to make a powerful statement to the Chinese government. In 2010, the couple, whose priceless shadow theatre collection (figures, sets, musical instruments, stages, scores and scripts) fills their self-funded shadow theatre museum in Beijing, announced in the New York Times that they were bringing their collection to the United States. They believed, as did Pauline Benton, that shadow theatre would be better respected in North America than in China, where it has been performed for a millennium and where for the past eight decades it has been dying a slow death at the hands of politics, movies, video games, and relentless Westernization of Chinese culture.
These artists had been through a worse hell than official negligence. Mr Cui and Ms Wang were among those who survived the Cultural Revolution, the years between 1966-1976 when artists deemed compromised by expertise in “feudal” art forms were sent to work in fields and factories, or left to rot in prisons, were forced to burn violins, shadow figures, poetry, and be reborn as proletarian robots in Chairman Mao’s brave new world. I knew that Mr Cui, having endured years of labour in a smelting factory and the shock of being ordered to destroy his beloved shadow figures (some of which he hid, at great peril, under his house), had suffered a devastating stroke that left one arm useless—the death knell to an artist whose medium requires the agility of a dancer. I knew that Mr Cui gave his shadow puppets credit for bringing him back to the land of the living, so he could continue to advocate for their own survival. And I knew that his and his wife’s decision to uproot themselves from a culture in which they and their art were inextricably intermingled, neither of them young, one of them in frail health, was fraught with as many potential perils as the adventures of Sun Wu-kung, the Monkey King of shadow theatre legend, who changes shape to suit situation and faces down the most terrifying demons.
Our interview was sometimes very sad. Our discussion took the couple back to the Cultural Revolution, to the weeks after Mr Cui’s stroke, to the Hong Kong millionaire who offered him a fortune for his museum (and was refused), and to what seemed a life of endless struggle in a rapidly changing world that appeared not to understand or support their quest to save shadow theatre for the future. But we had laughter, too. Ms Wang showed me how to manipulate figures. We enacted the Monkey King being given a very bumpy ride by a tiger. Thus had Mr Cui and Ms Wang also leapt onto the tiger’s back, from which they dared not dismount. Yet like Monkey, they showed no fear. “Shadow theatre is the culture not just of China, but of the whole world,” said Mr Cui that day. He and his brave wife would prove this, waken the world to its rich inheritance and serious responsibility, just as Pauline Benton tried to do. That afternoon, it seemed possible they might be right. Because of what Mr Cui and Ms Wang shared with me, Shadow Woman became the book I had hoped it would be, a link in the same chain connecting a shadow theatre dynasty of late imperial China with a college president’s daughter in democratic America, and to the innovations of such contemporary shadow masters as Annie Katsura Rollins.
Fast forward two years later, and Mr Cui’s daughter Cathy sat with me in her Vancouver living room, her coffee table stacked with bundles wrapped in Chinese newspapers. “My father wanted you to have these,” Cathy told me. She gently unwrapped each newsprint chrysalis to reveal the butterfly colours and personalities of twenty shadow figures, stars of shadow versions of the great Chinese novels The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, A Dream of Red Mansions, The Water Margin. “He chose them all specially for you,” Cathy said. We held the figures to the window, where they shimmered like stained glass angels come to life.
I sailed home to Vancouver Island with my heroes and heroines, and that afternoon I set them all out on my living room carpet, a mosaic of China’s history—generals, emperors, noble bandits, sensitive poets, corrupt officials. And I thought back to a little over a year earlier, when Mr Cui had stood in that same room, his face glowing, because the night before he had played to a standing-room only audience, giving what no one then knew was his final public performance. The venue was Merlin’s Sun, the exquisite private theatre of Canadian puppeteer Tim Gosley in Victoria. The night of the performance, I watched what happened behind the shadow screen and what happened in front. I saw Mr Cui and Ms Wang shed their years as they made magic behind the screen, enacting scenes romantic and comic. Among the huge and diverse crowd I saw tearful but smiling faces of elderly Chinese-Canadians, who had only heard of shadow theatre but never seen it. I saw their grandchildren sit open-mouthed in awe at entertainment that doesn’t rely on video technology to be entrancing.
I see a theme in these figures Mr Cui bequeathed to me. There are not only male but female warriors; not only figures from fiction but from China’s history. In his posthumous gift, it is as if Mr Cui adjured me to remember that great art is also a great struggle, that the fight to preserve shadow theatre must continue, and that the fight requires heroes of today—women and men—as it did yesterday. Pauline Benton and Mr Cui were such warriors, and so is anyone who loves something enough to risk their very lives in its service and celebration.
Join us for the following Shadow Woman events this week:
Shadow Woman Lunch and Learn
University of Victoria
Wednesday, October 9 at 12:30 PM
Click here for more info
Shadow Woman Book Launch
The Chinese Cultural Centre of Vancouver
Saturday, October 12 at 2:00 PM
Click here for more info