Yang Feng, a fifth-generation hand-puppeteer from the People's Republic of China, is a consummate virtuoso of this 500-year-old Chinese art, and a conversationalist who offers intriguing insights into the life of modern China.
Mr. Yang, on a goodwill tour of 13 cities in the United States and Canada with the seven-member Fujian Hand Puppet Theater, has introduced subtle, graceful nuances into the ancient puppet "operas" (short plays patterned closely after Peking Opera libretti) and perfected the performing techniques of a Fujian puppeteer.
At a recent performance at the American Museum of Natural History, Yang Feng's talents -- as well as those of his fellow puppeteers -- were abundantly evident as the puppets circled and gestured to the cadenced sounds of Oriental instruments.
The pale scholar opened his parasol and fanned himself breezily. The jolly gatekeeper stretched in his chair and put his feet up in relaxed opulence. Miss Ju, a beautiful lady in a blossomy, flowing gown and jeweled vest, combed her long, black, silky hair with sweeping motions. Lo Dapeng, wearing a bright-blue silk suit and black cloak, trod quietly into view followed by his white horse. The horse, saddled with emerald cloth, stooped to tug at the grass for a little meal.
There was enormous tension in the puppets' stylized, painstakingly executed movements. Each figure became a miniature mime tracing the delicate body language of the Peking Opera.
Sometimes the physical calligraphy of the Fujian hand puppets became so human that one forgot these were puppets, not people. The spare sets needed only a single cardboard rock or tree and a simple, embroidered backdrop to creat a landscape. And tiny, incidental gestures -- the horse nipping absently at his flank -- supplied charming touches of realism.
This realism is, in part, a creation of Mr. Yang. He was the first to give the puppets jointed arms and legs. And he increased their size, from less than 10 to 18 inches, making them far more expressive and versatile. He uses this new versatility with a skill he has acquired over a public career that began when he was 6.
Seen from the wings during performance, he is as concentrated and poised as a Nureyev executing the most difficult tour jete. Invisible to the audience behind the high stage apron, he still seems to be physically part of the performance, totally absorbed by the puppet in his hands. His white slippers slide noiselessly across the floor to syncopated strains of heroic Chinese music. The bright stage lights cut strong shadows across his rapt face. And his eyes never leave the performing figure above him.
Described as "a real character" by one of the Americans traveling with the troupe, he has the irrepressible offstage persona of a man used to speaking his mind, even if he does choose his words carefully when discussing politically sensitive matters. He has small hands, a mobile and expressive face, and a shock of thick, untamed black hair. "He eats like a tiger," one of the translators confides, "something they all tease him about."
Asked what he did during the brutally intense struggles of the Cultural Revolution, which shut down the thriving Fujian puppet theater off and on for 15 years until the late '70s, and threatened the lives of many Chinese artists, he laughs coolly and says (through an interpreter) that he "played around and fished, since I didn't need to go to work or practice." At that point, he adds with a mischievous smile, "I was just a member of the revolutionary masses."
Mr. Yang is no anonymous "member of the revolutionary masses" today. He is by all accounts a star in his home province, Fujian, and throughout most of China, where hand-puppetry has attained high status. He is the youngest member of China's standing committee of dramatists and the first puppeteer to serve in such a capacity. He is also a delegate to the provincial people's conference.
He has a wide circle of friends across China, he says: artists, workers, intellectuals, peasants. And he is the favorite to head a planned society of puppeteers in his country.
Mr. Yang follows in the footsteps of his ancient forebear Yang Wuxian, an actor during the last of the Chinese dynasties 200 years ago, who "lived a short life and did not really gain a high position," but nevertheless began the Yang tradition of hand-puppetry. Mr. Yang's great-grandfather became well known in his native city, Zhangzhou, where people still remember their grandparents saying, "Even if we didn't have enough money to buy our next meal, we would still want to buy tickets to see Yang Hungchang."
By the time his father, Yang Sheng, came along, the family was well known throughout China for its puppetry. The elder Yang created many puppet operas (including two performed on this tour) and won two gold medals in 1960 in international competition at Bucharest, Romania. "He was struggled against during the Cultural Revolution, because he was so prestigious," Mr. Yang remembers, standing in the half-shadows of a backstage dressing room during a performance. "But he also struggled against others. People were trying to destroy each other, not always with wrong intentions. Like many in his art circle, he was persecuted by the 'gang of four." At the same time, he was suffering from illness." Mr. Yang's father passed on in 1970.
Following these inense "struggles," Fujian Province was perhaps the worst place in China to be. Opened only this year to Western visitors, the secluded province, which faces Taiwan across the Strait of Formosa, was the staging ground for intense and bitter political unrest. The turmoil cost 20,000 lives, by one estimate. Teachers were beaten by students and evicted from their schools, and no one in a position of prominence was entirely safe. The strife continued until three years ago, when the Army was sent in to restore order.
Many artists had hidden classical Chinese paintings for safekeeping. Mr. Yang hid puppets, too, but acknowledges that he burned some of them "to get rid of the Four Olds" (a phrase used to describe the old customs and old ideas that were to be purged under the new order).
"The older generation of puppeteers was afraid," Mr. Yang recalls, standing ramrod straight, his arms folded in front of him. "I was not really afraid. But my father was. He was very prestigious [and therefore a likely target].
"I loved him very much. And I looked up to him. There is still a big gap to be made up between my father's accomplishments and mine. I'm far from the expectations of my father. He had a very strong sense of responsibility for his art. Even just before he died, he still practiced regularly."
Mr. Yang himself spends at least five hours a day at his art, which he is determined to carry forward with more innovations in the family tradition.
He has chosen a demanding craft to perfect. One of four puppet art forms developed in China (the three others are stick, string, and shadow puppets), hand-puppetry makes stringent demands of its practitioners. They must serve as apprentices for at least five years, usually beginning at a young age. They must study and practice special exercises, keeping, for instance, their thumb, index finger, and middle finger extended at right angles from one another for hours, in order to manipulate the puppet heads naturally.
The ancient practice of performing without rehearsing has given way to elaborate training schemes and rehearsals, and complicated staged directions that may require that as many as eight puppeteers maneuver in the tiny space behind the proscenium, executing their intricate, dancelike repertoires in carefully timed sequences. The whole rigorous routine leaves them exhausted.
Aside from the physical endurance it takes to put on 90-minute performances, arms extended and head arched backward, Mr. Yang says it is also necessary to study traditional Chinese dance, music, painting, and literature to become a truly great craftsman.
Once they have completed their apprenticeship, puppeteers practice the craft as their only vocation and livelihood.
It is not a bad life by Chinese standards, and it has become attractive to young children. A couple of years ago, auditions were held to fill 15 openings in the puppet academy. Five hundred applicants showed up. Among other things, the promise of extensive travel -- the troupe has visited Australia and every part of China, except for Tibet, Mongolia, and the Xinjiang Province -- is a stong draw. Puppeteers also earn extra benefits, they say, like additional meals after performances, bonus pay, and prestige in their communities.
These traveling artists don't look especially pampered. Dressed in extremely conservative Western-style clothing, sitting in a line at a recent press conference, they look like a cross section of the mass of Chinese humanity. Their faces are etched with human struggle and character. One woman bears a striking resemblance to the heroic women common in Chinese posters. One of the men has sharp, drawn features and a perpetual look of uncertainty. But, for all their individualism, they seem oddly identical in their gestures during the formalities of the conference.
They are also at one in their eagerness to proclaim the new age of liberalism in China, especially as far as their art is concerned.
"Under the old regime," one comments, "the number of operas that could be performed was sharply restricted by the government. Now we follow Chairman Mao Tse-tung's admonition to 'let a thousand flowers bloom,'" (i.e., allow far greater artistic freedom). Today, puppeteer Chen Jintang maintains, they are allowed to make changes in the libretti for local performances without consulting higher authority.
The puppeteers are hard-pressed to name specific operas that have politically sensitive themes. Asked to do so, they mention "the monkey who learned to stop smoking" and stories that "teach children to help older people."
They are never unmindful to their role as official representatives of the People's Republic of China on this tour of the US.
Even the irreverent Yang Feng is careful to present his country in only the most idealogically correct light, to assure the interviewer that in China no one is better off than anyone else. His six-year-old daughter, who has begun to take up hand-puppetry, is away from home all week at a kindergarten, returning to their four-room apartment only on week-ends. But he assures the interviewer this is a constructive approach: "Most Chinese children do this," he explains. "They get a better education that way. I miss her, but it is a good idea."
Asked if he ever worries that the political turmoil of the Cultural revolution may someday return and that his father's fate might overtake him, Yang Feng answers decisively, "No, my father was persecuted by the 'gang of four.' Now our government is leading us forward. There are no more people like the 'gang of four' in power.
"We have very correct leadership in China today."
The Fujian Hand Puppets have five cities left to tour: Montreal, Sept. 26-27; Berkeley, Calif., Sept. 29-30; Los Angeles, Oct. 5; Santa Barbara, Calif., Oct. 7; Honolulu, Oct. 9.m