“Devil monkey! Where are you escaping to?!”
At the Dragon in the Sky Shadow Puppet Playhouse here, the silhouette of Princess Iron Fan was shouting furiously at the Monkey King. She thrust her sword at him, as he leapt up, grasping his golden cudgel.
It was an episode from the classic Chinese tale “Journey to the West,” in which the Monkey King struggles to get hold of Princess Iron Fan’s fan to extinguish the blaze on the Mountain of Flames. The characters, figures cut from donkey leather and manipulated with rods, were backlit against a cloth screen, in an art form that goes back 2,000 years and has been included in the intangible cultural heritage list by the United Nations’ cultural heritage agency.
But when the performance ended and the puppeteers, musicians and singers came onstage for their curtain call, it was clear that this was no ordinary theater group. The performers, mostly in their early 20s, were all well below average height.
The theater, near the south entrance to the Old Summer Palace, was founded by Lin Zhonghua, 43, a former editor of People’s Daily. Distressed that this traditional art he loved was fast declining, as people moved to cities and found alternative entertainments, he quit his newspaper job in 2006 and established the playhouse. But he had difficulty recruiting young people interested in learning shadow puppetry. He turned to an acquaintance, Wu Xiaoli, and asked if she knew of any possible recruits.
Ms. Wu, who is herself a dwarf, saw an opportunity for a group of like-statured people who face considerable job discrimination in China. Soon, four people were hired and the core of the theater group was in place. Now, the playhouse employs 96 dwarfs, from all over China, and gives two performances every day but Tuesday.
And Mr. Lin has the satisfaction of realizing his dream of a thriving shadow puppet theater, while providing employment for his highly dedicated performers.
“They’ve saved each other,” he said.
Although Chinese labor law states that employers must not discriminate against handicapped people, and dwarfism is defined as a grade-3 disability, in practice the challenges dwarfs face in China are daunting. Job notices often stipulate minimum height requirements.
One member of the Dragon in the Sky Shadow Puppet Playhouse, Li Xiaoshuang, 28, described her earlier frustrations in trying to find a job.
“The security guards at factories wouldn’t let me in,’’ she said. “They thought I was just a kid. When I showed them my ID card, they insisted it was fake.”
Another member, Jiang Meixue, had been a clothing trader in her hometown in Shandong Province before joining the theater. “In sixth grade, I realized I had stopped growing,” she said.
She said she had not been particularly interested in shadow puppets until she saw a program about the troupe on China Central Television in 2008. She contacted Dragon in the Sky and underwent several months of training before becoming a full-fledged member. Now she makes shadow puppets, cutting and painting the leather, and sings and takes speaking roles during the performances. She lives with other troupe members in the theater’s dormitory, and often joins them to watch television or shop at the night markets.
One of their teachers, Wang Jing, said she was surprised by the performers’ self-confidence.
“Once, when we all were hanging out together, someone asked if they were my children,’’ Ms. Wang said. “I was too embarrassed to speak a word, but they spoke up right away, saying they were my sisters.”
“These little people are actually ideal for shadow plays because of their height” given the traditionally short screens, she said, adding that they could be the saviors of the art. “They’re really committed once they join us.”
After the performance, Ms. Wang invited the audience to come backstage to take a closer look at the shadow puppets and meet the performers.
The average monthly wage of theater members is 2,500 renminbi, about $385. This compares with an average wage in Beijing last year of 6,463 renminbi, but they are given other benefits, such as free housing and meals.
Ms. Jiang said she was happy to be financially independent. “I bought lots of things on ‘Double 11!’ ” said Ms. Jiang, referring to Nov. 11, or Singles Day in China, which tends to elicit an online shopping frenzy.
Still, the greatest benefit, she said, was finding a community where everyone faces similar challenges. “I like it here,” Ms. Jiang said.
As commercially successful as Dragon in the Sky’s performances have been, some purists have objected to some of the theater’s departures from tradition. The plays have tended to feature stories aimed at children, rather than some of the art’s more complicated themes. Partly this is to accommodate the performers’ voices, which are naturally high-pitched, and partly it reflects Mr. Lin’s campaign to attract younger viewers.
Mr. Lin acknowledged that the performers’ stature had become a selling point in promoting the theater. But he insisted, “Its social value greatly outweighs its business value.”
“There was one young man who came to us and asked just one question, ‘Is there any food? If so, I’ll stay,’ ” Mr. Lin said. The theater has addressed that problem of basic livelihood for people who too often have trouble finding work.
But it has not solved all their problems. Ms. Jiang has fallen in love with another troupe member, and they hope to leave behind the separate men’s and women’s dorms and set up their own household.
“Considering the high cost of an apartment in Beijing,” she said, “I might still need to live here for a bit longer.”
By ZHAN HUILAN December 18, 2015 in The New York Times