Ji Tianyuan, a puppet maker in Taishun county, Zhejiang province. [Photo/66wz.com]
With her hands pulling and adjusting the strings, Ji Tianyuan maneuvered a puppet to reenact classical Chinese theatrical acts, as a toddler, barely taller than the puppet, watched on attentively.
Ji is a puppet maker in Taishun County of east China's Zhejiang Province, where puppetry has a history of over 600 years. The show that she put on at a traditional local bridge has been performed and exhibited in multiple countries.
As an inheritor of puppet head carving, a national intangible cultural heritage, Ji has been promoting the art in creative forms along with her colleagues.
Ji was born to a long line of craftsmen. Since childhood, she has been witnessing her father, also a puppet maker, carve puppet heads and paint their faces.
"I gradually became interested and later my father signed me up for painting and calligraphy classes," Ji said. "Because of him, I started my career in puppet making."
In her home, Ji has a cabinet for displaying her father's works. "You can see some of my father's influence in my works. He used to watch me make puppets and help me whenever I had problems," she said.
Now Ji has a workshop of several square meters in her attic, with two lamps and a section for storing wood.
To make a puppet, Ji goes through a process of designing, carving, styling, painting and clothes-making. The whole process can take as long as several months.
"Each puppet is unique and they are like children to me," Ji said.
The final products are displayed in rows in a small room. The puppets include many famous characters from Chinese novels written in different dynasties.
"Sometimes I imagine if they all came alive, they would probably be baffled by what dynasty they are in and start to argue, as some characters are friends, and some are complete strangers," Ji said.
In recent years, Ji and local craftsmen have been innovating their puppet-making techniques, enabling them to play traditional musical instruments or perform face-changing, a subgenre of traditional Sichuan Opera.
Wei Chaohao, the founder of a local puppetry troupe, incorporates social issues into the shows, for example, creating plays for anti-drug campaigns.
During the COVID-19 epidemic, he also created puppet shows to remind people to be mindful of their personal hygiene, wear masks and wash their hands often, which became popular on social media.
In 2019, the local government opened a training class for puppet shows and invited inheritors like Ji to teach.
"We hope that the puppet shows can be passed down to later generations, and still retain their unique charm," Ji said.