U.S. Woman Preserves Chinese Shadow Puppetry

July 25, 2017
Editor: Amanda Wu
U.S. Woman Preserves Chinese Shadow Puppetry

Annie Katsura Rollins [hereinuk at WeChat]


An American enthusiast has dedicated herself to carrying forward Chinese shadow puppetry, an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment, over the past few years.

Annie Katsura Rollins grew up in Minnesota. Her mother is of Chinese and Japanese ancestry. When she was a small girl, she liked to seek out her own "cultural belonging," Rollins says. 

Later, she fell in love with all things Chinese. By chance, she heard about shadow puppetry and developed a great interest. The ancient performing art features flat articulated cut-out figures (shadow puppets) held between a source of light and a translucent screen or scrim.

In the summer of 2008, Rollins, whilst pursuing her postgraduate studies in the States, visited China's northwestern Shaanxi Province, the ancestral home of shadow puppetry.

After getting off the plane, she changed onto a train, transferred to a bus, took a motorcycle taxi, and finally arrived at a small village. Coincidentally, there was a shadow play that very night.

As soon as the play started, Rollins was hooked and made up her mind to do in-depth studies of the art form. 

Accordingly, that summer, Rollins apprenticed herself to Master Wei of the Hua Xia Shadow Troupe in Shaanxi. There she learned techniques of carving and animating figures.

In 2010, Rollins read a New York Times article about Chinese shadow puppetry, and learned about Beijing Cui Yongping Shadow Puppetry Museum. As reported, the museum displays some 10,000 shadow figures and stores another 120,000 in its warehouse, with some from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. 

With a great curiosity, the next year, Rollins went to China again by virtue of a Fulbright Fellowship and stayed in the country for a year. She visited the shadow museum in Beijing as well as seven provinces that historically specialized in the folk art. Meanwhile, she took lessons in manipulating shadow puppets from a number of traditional masters. 

This way, Rollins turned herself from an outsider to a professional puppeteer. In a bid to preserve the precious traditional Chinese art, she created and performed two mobile, shadow "bike tours" in Beijing, presenting its unique charm in big streets and small alleys.

All the meanwhile, Rollins wrote down her experiences in her fieldwork blog.

She also established an English-language website to introduce details such as the history, production, masters, different regional characteristics, performance videos as well as puppet DIY templates.

Back in the States, Rollins has been devoted to designing puppets and staging performances in the hope of getting more people to learn about the Chinese folk art and making her own contributions to keeping it alive.

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