Vital Signs

Updated: 2016-02-16 09:24

By Lin Qi(China Daily)

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Vital Signs

[Photo by Jiang Dong and Zhang Bin/ China Daily]

A master carver brings his family craft to the sixth generation, investing his wooden creations with eyes and other facial features that move. Lin Qi reports.

The name of Xu Zhuchu means "newly grown bamboo", embracing a wish for extraordinary vitality that would keep the family thriving for generations.

Now 78, Xu, a State-level inheritor of the puppet-carving technique, is still creative and hard at work at his home and studio in Zhangzhou, Fujian province.

In a career spanning six decades, Xu has used camphor wood to create some 600 characters from different walks of life and in both the human and fairy world. He has also carried forward six generations of puppet-making, a family business that could be traced back to the first handicraft studio opened by his ancestors during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820).

Last month Xu donated nearly 400 puppets, mostly his works and some from the earlier generations of the family, to the National Art Museum of China. They are now on show at the museum through February.

Xu's family craft mainly caters to the time-honored Zhangzhou glove puppet show. The performance used to entertain locals in eastern China for centuries and today amuses both home and overseas audiences.

A skillful performer manipulates his puppet by putting one hand into its body, which is made into a glove; his index finger operates its head, whose vivid movements and facial expressions rely on the handicraft of the Xu family.

Xu was born with a deep affection for puppet-making. He loved watching his father, Xu Niansong, carve out lively figurines. His parents, however, didn't want him to continue the family business. They sent him to school in the hope that he would land a stable job after graduation.

"We took shelter in a shabby house, and we had no farm lands to live on. Making puppets would barely support the whole family," Xu recalls.

But in his free time after school, Xu's crafting skills improved. He was so focused on the work that he once got his hair burned by an oil lamp. His fingers were often hurt by the slippery knives: There was blood all over the molds.

At 16, his three puppet works won the top prize at a national youth handicraft expo. Because of his talent in the craft, Xu was recommended for admission to the Central Academy of Fine Arts. But at the time, his mother's sudden death made him drop his plans for further studies in Beijing. Being the eldest child, he decided to stay at home to take care of the family.

Xu entered a local puppet-show troupe. He has since turned into a dynamic, imaginative band of puppets.

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