Wang Tianwen Shaanxi, China

Born in Hua County, Shaanxi Province, Wang Tianwen is a representative inheritor of the carving techniques used to create shadow puppets. The craftsmanship has been enlisted into the National Intangible Cultural Heritage List. As a state-level Arts and Crafts Master, Wang not only has a unique understanding of the process of puppet carving, but also has deep insights into the history of shadow play in Shaanxi. He is a key figure in the inheritance and innovation of the “Carving with Moving Leather” technique. He is also crucial in collecting and reproducing lost puppet designs, identifying and repairing old puppets—he is indeed a walking museum of shadow play.

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Q

Could you share with us your learning experiences?

A

I’ve enjoyed watching Hua County shadow play when I was only a kid. I also liked to make paper puppets by myself. I started to learn puppet carving in Xi’an when I was 11. By the age of 12, I became the last apprentice of Master Li Zhanwen, the renowned shadow puppet carver and hence embarked on the journey that was to be lasted for over 50 years.

Q

Could you tell us one of your most unforgettable experiences?

A

The “Carving with Moving Leather” technique most shadow play artist in Hua County take great pride in can only be mastered through hard training. A carver needs to learn how to move the leather under a graver using his index finger, middle finger and ring finger. It takes three years of training, rain or shine. I remember I was only 12, not even tall enough to reach the table. So I had to stand on a stool during practices. I was trained first with bare hands, then with my right hand pressing on the back of my left wrist. That was only my first year of training. In my second year, I practiced with two bricks on the back of my wrist; in my third year, with two bricks hanging down the wrist. I practiced for half an hour every day. After that, I would practice calligraphy. In the afternoon, I would carve. I first learned how to make hands, flowers and arms; later, I learned how to carve figures and palaces. A swollen hand was usually what I got after a day’s training in those days.

Many foreigners like the art of shadow play. During vocations, my studio often receives young visitors from art schools in Japan and Germany. They come to study and observe our work. I was invited by a Swiss art and cultural organization to create shadow figures that can best present their customs and practices. The work turned out to be very popular among the locals. I believe that if our unique techniques and fine artistry of shadow play are used to show the culture and natural beauty of another country, we can surely come up with more and better works.

Q

What are your wishes?

A

I wish to teach the techniques to more young people so that more fine puppets can be created. I also wish to have a museum of shadow play of my own.

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