Chinese shadow theater fights against dying of the light

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Falling audiences mean troupes are having to be creative to stay on the stage. (AFP)
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Members of the Flying Dragon Troupe create shadow puppets at the troupe’s studio on the outskirts of Beijing. (AFP)
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Shadow puppets flitting across screens and reliving age old stories have fascinated Chinese people for some 2,000 years. (AFP)
Updated 08 July 2019

Chinese shadow theater fights against dying of the light

  • Shadow theater was celebrated up until the 1960s when it was targeted as part of the Cultural Revolution
  • For the Chinese, the show is the forerunner of cinema

BEIJING: Shadow puppets flitting across screens and reliving age old stories have fascinated Chinese people for some 2,000 years, but falling audiences mean troupes are having to be creative to stay on the stage.
On a translucent screen in a Beijing classroom, a child with a cosmic ring takes on the son of the dragon king, attacking him with huge thrusts of his lance.
Behind the screen, puppeteers use rods to move the figures, to the joy of the schoolchildren watching.
The legends of the past are the bedrock of shadow theater — a tradition still popular in the countryside, though it has lost much ground in large cities over the last few decades.
Shadow theater was celebrated up until the 1960s when it was targeted as part of the Cultural Revolution. It had something of a renaissance in the 1980s and in 2011 was included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
For the Chinese, the show is the forerunner of cinema — in the Chinese language the word “cinema” literally means “electric shadow.”
With video games, film and TV now vying for viewers glued to their smartphones, shadow theater is slowly losing its audience, and performers are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Wiping his forehead after his furious on-stage battle, Lu Baobang — one of the last puppeteers of the old generation — is worried there is no one to replace him when he retires.
“We can’t offer reasonable living standards to young apprentices,” said Lu, who descends from a large family that developed one of the main schools of shadow theater in Beijing.
While the theater struggles to attract young peoples’ interest, a troupe in a Beijing suburb — whose performers have an average age of 22 — has managed to survive.
It is made up of 60 or so puppeteers with dwarfism, who present themselves as having an average height of 1.26 meters.
Jin Xinchun is one of them. He was struggling to find work several years ago, before he discovered the troupe online and moved to Beijing to join it where he was employed as a puppet maker.
“I am always happy to cut old leather to make beautiful puppets. They are my babies!,” Jin told AFP.
Wang Xi, a puppeteer founded the troupe with her husband in 2008 after meeting with the national association of dwarves.
“They had trouble finding work. And it was hard for us to find successors. Our collaboration is like two drawbacks that turned out to a be a plus!“
The puppeteers now perform regularly in schools.
But Wang Xi said she is nervous about the future: “Our masters are all older than 80 and they obviously won’t be able to go on stage in 10 years.”
State support is key to keeping shadow theater alive, Lu said.
“The government is aware of the importance of traditional culture, what we need now are concrete measures,” he said.
“This art will have no future if we don’t give young people hope.”


Australian man survives croc attack by gouging its eye

Updated 16 November 2019

Australian man survives croc attack by gouging its eye

  • Wildlife ranger Craig Dickmann made a split-second decision to go fishing in a remote part of Northern Australia known as ‘croc country.’
  • ‘That noise will haunt me forever I think, the sound of the snap of its jaws’

CAIRNS, Australia: An Australian wildlife ranger has recounted his terrifying escape from the clutches of a “particularly cunning” crocodile, after wrestling with the reptile and sticking a finger in its eye.
Craig Dickmann, who made a split-second decision to go fishing last Sunday in a remote part of Northern Australia known as “croc country” last Sunday, said a 2.8-meter (nine-foot) crocodile came up from behind him as he was leaving the beach.
“As I’ve turned to go, the first thing I see is its head just come at me,” he told reporters on Friday from his hospital bed in the town of Cairns in Queensland state.
Dickmann said the animal latched on to his thigh.
“That noise will haunt me forever I think, the sound of the snap of its jaws,” he said.
The 54-year-old said he wrestled with the croc on the remote beach as it tried to drag him into the water.
Dickmann stuck his thumb into its eye, saying it was the only “soft spot” he found on the “bullet-proof” animal.
“Their eyes retract a fair way and when you go down far enough you can feel bone so I pushed as far as I possibly could and then it let go at that point,” Dickmann said.
After a few minutes, he said he managed to get on top of the croc and pin its jaws shut.
“And then, I think both the croc and I had a moment where we’re going, ‘well, what do we do now?’”
Dickmann said he then pushed the croc away from him and it slid back into the water.
The ranger had skin ripped from his hands and legs in the ordeal and drove more than 45 minutes back to his home before calling emergency services.
It was then another hour in the car to meet the Royal Flying Doctors Service who flew him to Cairns Hospital, where he is recovering from the ordeal.
“This croc was particularly cunning and particularly devious,” he said.
Queensland’s department of environment this week euthanized the animal.
“The area is known croc country and people in the area are reminded to always be crocwise,” the department said in a statement.
Saltwater crocodiles, which can grow up to seven meters long and weigh more than a ton, are common in the vast continent’s tropical north.
Their numbers have exploded since they were declared a protected species in the 1970s, with attacks on humans rare.
According to the state government, the last non-fatal attack was in January 2018 in the Torres Strait while the last death was in October 2017 in Port Douglas.