The botfly professor and his antique Chinese shadow puppets

Our local library recently hosted a talk by a retired microbiology professor, Shan De Liu. He has worked on, among other things, zoonoses, particularly the botfly. If you don’t know what that is, check out its grossness (and fascinating facts) here.

Professor Liu’s grandmother sent his uncle into the interior of China to buy herbs for the family’s traditional herbalism business. The uncle could not get the desired herbs,  but instead bought a box of leather shadow puppets for their beauty and history. Over the long journey home, many were lost from the box. Grandmother was not impressed. “You have destroyed our family,” she said.

Chinese shadow puppets are said to have originated in the Tang dynasty (8th century CE). Performances were banned and puppets destroyed during the Chinese cultural revolution. Professor Liu’s father saved the family’s puppets by burying them and retrieving them later. The professor himself was imprisoned, and on his release continued his academic career and collecting of puppets in any areas of China he visited, especially along the Silk Road.

The puppets are made of cow hide, and coloured with vegetable dyes. The cutting blade is fixed, and the leather moved around it to produce the often delicate cuts and shapes.

The stories told via the puppets started off as Buddhist teaching tales.

The good professor is 87 (“and a half!”, he insists), and told some tales of his time researching in the north-west deserts of China – like when he found a 4,000-year-old mummy lying in the sand, and when one of his colleagues disappeared forever (his footsteps on the dunes just stopped) when looking for deuterium. I sure hope someone in his family is writing down the story of his life.

Below, in no particular order, are some of Professor Shan’s 400-odd collection. The oldest ones are about 150 years old.

Chinese shadow puppet_1

Chinese shadow puppet_2 Chinese shadow puppet_3 Chinese shadow puppet_4 Chinese shadow puppet_5 Chinese shadow puppet_6 Chinese shadow puppet_7 Chinese shadow puppet_8 Chinese shadow puppet_9 Chinese shadow puppet_10 Chinese shadow puppet_11 Chinese shadow puppet_12 Chinese shadow puppet_13 Chinese shadow puppet_14 Chinese shadow puppet_15 Chinese shadow puppet_16 Chinese shadow puppet_17 Chinese shadow puppet_18 Chinese shadow puppet_19 Chinese shadow puppet_20 Chinese shadow puppet_21 Chinese shadow puppet_22 Chinese shadow puppet_23 Chinese shadow puppet_24 Chinese shadow puppet_26 Chinese shadow puppet_27 Chinese shadow puppet_28 Chinese shadow puppet_29 Chinese shadow puppet_30 Chinese shadow puppet_31 Chinese shadow puppet_33 Chinese shadow puppet_35 Chinese shadow puppet_37 Chinese shadow puppet_38Chinese shadow puppet_end

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4 Responses to The botfly professor and his antique Chinese shadow puppets

  1. These are beautiful! Botflies, on the other hand, are disgusting…

  2. janebeau says:

    Gorgeous! Especially loved the ‘tree man’ and, of course, the horse! Andrew must have been in seventh heaven! x J

  3. kath says:

    What a magnificent collection! Thanks for sharing this significantly different cultural story with us. I recognize some classical Chinese motifs from the Art Gallery of NSW – they have wonderful collections of Chinese art. Have read some books by Chinese authors in past year and we know very little of the amazing and diverse cultures and history of the Chinese mainland. I was speaking with a Chinese student recently and he reiterated that China is really not one nation. He was very careful in what he said and could not clarify that without acting extremely uncomfortable. Another conversation with a medical statistician had him reporting he came from “a small province of only 40 million people”. How different we are. Or are we?

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