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.