Peep Shows in Bei­jing and Tian­jin

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Li Yi Edited by David Ball

Although layang­pian (peep shows) have grad­u­ally been for­got­ten, their dis­tinc­tive charm has not been tar­nished by the pas­sage of time.

The fol­low­ing is a de­scrip­tion of a scene from the early 20th cen­tury: “Look through this hole to en­joy the West Lake in Hangzhou. Along the Bro­ken Bridge there, the Leg­end of the White Snake took place. Monk Fa­hai has used his magic pow­ers to im­prison Bai Suzhen—a large white snake trans­formed into the fig­ure of a wo­man—in Leifeng Pagoda for thou­sands of years…”

Stand­ing be­side a “huge wooden box” mea­sur­ing around three me­tres high and 1.6 me­tres long, a per­former wear­ing a blue robe and a small black hat was singing in high spir­its, ges­tur­ing with his hands.

At­tracted by his rhyth­mic sto­ry­telling and singing, a crowd has gath­ered around the front of this huge wooden box and is peep­ing through its round holes with great in­ter­est. In­side there are sev­eral pic­tures that to­gether form a story. As the op­er­a­tor switches be­tween the pic­tures and ac­com­pa­nied by his singing, it seems al­most as if a mini-film is be­ing shown.

This crowd is gath­ered around a peep show, a tra­di­tional folk art that could be per­formed by a sin­gle per­son with just a box, drum, cym­bal and pic­tures—the sto­ry­telling and songs hav­ing re­mained un­changed for over a hun­dred years. At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, peep shows were one of the most im­pres­sive forms of en­ter­tain­ment in Bei­jing, Tian­jin and He­bei.

Ori­gins and Orig­i­nal­ity

Peep shows in China were also known as Layang­pian, which lit­er­ally meant “pulling for­eign pic­ture cards.” In the book Cangx­ian zhi ( Chronol­ogy of Cang County) it states: “Light en­ters the wooden box through a small hole, and peo­ple could see pic­tures through a con­vex lens. The show­man would sing to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of ‘ Shibux­ian’ [a folk-art form] to liven up the at­mos­phere. Peep shows were also known as ‘Ex­hibit­ing Scener­ies from West Lake,’ be­cause the images on show were all of at­trac­tions around West Lake. Later, they were also known as ‘Ex­hibit­ing At­trac­tions from For­eign Coun­tries’ af­ter the pic­tures of West Lake were re­placed by those of for­eign coun­tries.”

Peep shows were gen­er­ally di­vided into two types. The first was for “larger for­eign pic­ture cards,” whereby a oneme­tre-wide by two-me­tre-high wooden box was used with up­per and lower sec­tions. A piece of glass was in­laid in the up­per layer, where the pic­ture cards were pulled to at­tract au­di­ences. The lower part of the box had four win­dows each as large as a tea cup in which there were con­vex lenses for au­di­ence mem­bers to look through. On the top of the lower-lay­ered box there was also a dark­ened win­dow with a cover that could be used to change light­ing con­di­tions in­side to in­di­cate day or night, and over­cast or fine weather. The images al­lowed au­di­ences to feel as if they were ac­tu­ally there, and the sto­ry­telling and singing ac­com­pa­nied by a gong and drum added to the artis­tic ef­fect.

The other type was for “lesser for­eign pic­ture cards.” For this kind of per­for­mance, 12 wooden boxes were fixed onto a wooden frame­work, each with a con­vex lens in the front and a slot in the rear to hold the pic­ture card. This ver­sion of the per­for­mance al­lowed 12 peo­ple to view the cards at the same time. Two op­er­a­tors, one stood on each side of the wooden frame­work, then worked to­gether to push and pull the pic­ture cards while singing the story.

With a his­tory of more than 600 years, Tian­qiao in Bei­jing was a gath­er­ing place for lo­cal op­eras, folk singing and other forms of shows. Of these per­form­ing arts, peep shows were pop­u­lar be­cause of its vivid artis­tic charms and dis­tinc­tive style of per­for­mance.

To­wards the end of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911), a man by the name of Jiao Jinchi from He­jian County in He­bei Prov­ince came to Tian­qiao to make a liv­ing per­form­ing on the street, and in­tro­duced peep shows to Bei­jing. In his early days at Tian­qiao, he per­formed us­ing very sim­ple props. His box was wrapped in a green mat, in which a num­ber of round holes had been drilled and in­side were sev­eral pic­ture cards.

Stood atop a stool, Jiao told his sto­ries while point­ing at the pic­ture cards one af­ter another with a long stick to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of a gong or drum. At that time, the pic­tures were poorly drawn, mainly dis­play­ing land­scapes around West Lake, in­clud­ing peo­ple and build­ings (pavil­ions, ter­races and tow­ers). These pic­tures were called the “Eight Pic­ture Cards of At­trac­tions from West Lake.” The au­di­ences would lean against the mat and view the pic­tures through the round holes, lis­ten­ing to the sto­ries told by Jiao Jinchi in­cluded his­tor­i­cal leg­ends and con­dem­na­tions of so­cial evils, all told in easy-to-un­der­stand lan­guage.

Over time, his main stage prop evolved into an exquisitely-made wooden box into which round holes had been cut

and mag­ni­fy­ing glasses in­laid; and in­side, pic­ture cards could be switched by pulling a string. Each burst of singing was also fol­lowed by mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment from per­cus­sion in­stru­ments, such as a gong, drum or cym­bal.

Jiao Jinchi’s arias ab­sorbed the essence of Bei­jing Qin­shu (a form of bal­lad-singing), Jingyun dagu (sto­ry­telling in a Bei­jing di­alect with drum ac­com­pa­ni­ment), pingju (a lo­cal opera in north China) and opera from He­bei Prov­ince. Such arias were un­adorned and nat­u­ral in style, sung in a fa­mil­iar Bei­jing di­alect. The arias were sim­i­lar to po­etry recita­tions, with sen­tences paired and rhymed, and com­posed in easy-tounder­stand lyrics.

No­table Per­form­ers

Be­sides per­form­ing at Tian­qiao, Jiao Jinchi also put on shows at tem­ple fairs in Old Bei­jing. There he would put the large colour­ful pic­tures into the rear part of the box which had 10 round trans­par­ent lenses. Vis­i­tors of all ages would sit on the benches in front and lean for­ward to stare in­side while lis­ten­ing to Jiao’s singing. Each time he changed a pic­ture card, he would stand to the left of the box and sound the flat drum, gong and small cym­bal that were po­si­tioned on a three- lay­ered wooden shelf and con­trolled by three levers. With a pull on the string, the three in­stru­ments would be sounded at the same time, giv­ing a pleas­ing ef­fect.

Hailed as one of the “eight ec­centrics in Tian­qiao,” Jiao Jinchi was of­ten in­vited to per­form at joy­ful cer­e­monies to liven up the at­mos­phere and he was even loved by home­mak­ers who loved his singing that was pop­u­lar yet not vul­gar. Jiao was recorded singing his arias by RCA Vic­tor in 1929 and broad­cast on the ra­dio. Ow­ing to his pop­u­lar­ity, he was also listed as one of the “eight ec­centrics” in the later pe­riod of Tian­qiao. The arias he is best known for in­clude “Kuameiren” (“In Praise of Beauty”) and “Xiaoguafu shangfen” (“Young Widow Vis­it­ing the Grave”).

Af­ter Jiao Jinchi passed away in 1943, his dis­ci­ple Luo Peilin—who went on to be listed as one of the “lesser eight ec­centrics” in Tian­qiao—con­tin­ued to per­form peep shows. When Jiao Jinchi was alive, the two men of­ten per­formed to­gether. Fol­low­ing Jiao’s death how­ever, Luo Peilin was grad­u­ally able to dis­play his skills alone and even out­stripped his mas­ter. Dur­ing the 1930s and 40s when Luo per­formed in Tian­qiao, he be­gan to de­velop his own unique charisma in ad­di­tion to in­her­it­ing his mas­ter’s per­form­ing style. He usu­ally per­formed with a crew cut hair­style, wear­ing a black gown and wield­ing a long bam­boo stick which he used to point at the fig­ure paint­ings from time to time. He was ex­tremely pop­u­lar with au­di­ences be­cause of his hu­mour, his per­for­mances un­der a cloth tent at­tract­ing large crowds to come sit be­fore his wooden box.

Over time how­ever things have changed and the bustling scenes in the old Tian­qiao mar­ket are now gone, as are the peep shows, which dis­ap­peared for nearly 30 years in Bei­jing and did not reap­pear again un­til the end of the 1980s. It was thanks to a man by the name of Bi Fux­i­ang that this tra­di­tional per­form­ing art with a his­tory of more than 100 years did not sink into obliv­ion. Bi Fux­i­ang first started to learn his skills at Tian­qiao when he was just a boy, and the peep show trade left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on him. Af­ter the tem­ple fairs were re­stored, he recre­ated the arias and props nec­es­sary to stage per­for­mances based on his me­mories. Thus, the art form of peep shows—which was al­most lost to the world—was saved.

Chi­nese peep shows have been suc­cess­fully ap­proved as items of in­tan­gi­ble her­itage and the Bei­jing Fu Tian­qiao Baosan Folk Cus­tom Cul­ture and Art Troupe has been con­firmed as its in­her­i­tor. As such, peep shows have been per­formed and in­her­ited by four dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions—from Jiao Jinchi to Luo Peilin, then Wang Xianchen and now Bei­jing Fu’s Tian­qiao Baosan Folk Cus­tom Cul­ture and Art Troupe.

Re­viv­ing Old Me­mories

The area along Nan­men­wai Street, Nanma Road and Heping Road in Tian­jin to­day was once an “un­reg­u­lated area” more than 100 years ago. At that time, it was a place sim­i­lar to Tian­qiao in Bei­jing, where folk artists made their liv­ing by per­form­ing var­i­ous shows and arts. The beat­ing of the drum and gong has never stopped in this area ever since those peep show per­form­ers came all the way from He­bei to Bei­jing and Tian­jin dur­ing the late Qing Dy­nasty.

Young peo­ple to­day are per­haps un­fa­mil­iar with “peep shows” or “pulling for­eign pic­ture cards,” how­ever for older peo­ple, they con­jure up images of the past that can re­duce them to tears. Fol­low­ing

the beat­ing of the drum and gong, the per­former be­gins telling the story of Bai Suzhen: “Come look in­side and en­joy the pic­tures. This is the story of the ro­mance be­tween two peo­ple who live far apart but are des­tined to be to­gether. It is the story of when Bai Suzhen met Xu Xian by the Bro­ken Bridge. The scener­ies of West Lake are in­tox­i­cat­ingly grace­ful, and the girls in Hangzhou are as beau­ti­ful as god­desses…”

Peep shows are im­printed in the minds of gen­er­a­tions of lo­cal res­i­dents. It may be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that all Tian­jin res­i­dents over the age of 60 watched peep shows when they were young, but it is true that many peo­ple have warm me­mories of them. Up un­til the 1950s and 60s, peo­ple could still hear folk artists beat­ing their gong or drum on the street as a sign that they were pre­par­ing to give a per­for­mance. Chil­dren would then rush out of their homes to watch their favourite peep show or “gugudiu” (a form of pup­pet show).

Over time, the peep show per­form­ers have dis­ap­peared from the streets of Tian­jin, mean­ing this lively art form can now only be ap­pre­ci­ated through pho­to­graphs. En­cour­ag­ingly how­ever, some peo­ple still seem un­will­ing to let this once-beloved folk art be rel­e­gated to the his­tory books. Sun Zhen­hong, a 72-yearold lo­cal res­i­dent of Tian­jin, is just one of those pro­mot­ing the art of peep shows to new au­di­ences.

Ac­cord­ing to Sun Zhen­hong, he pro­duced his peep show box with­out hav­ing one to copy, in­stead re­ly­ing on his child­hood me­mories and clues from old pho­to­graphs. He was still able to vaguely re­mem­ber see­ing peep shows and an el­derly mas­ter mak­ing a box back in the 1940s when he was grow­ing up in He­bei. Not will­ing to set­tle into an idle life af­ter re­tir­ing, Sun searched ev­ery­where for teach­ers and vis­ited friends, mak­ing up his mind to re­store, in­herit and carry for­ward this tra­di­tional art form. In his at­tempts to pro­duce and im­prove on the old box, Sun not only re­pro­duced the box used by folk artists in the past, but also es­tab­lished the “Three-five The­atri­cal Troupe” with fel­low lovers of folk-style vo­cal arts. Us­ing the box he pro­duced him­self, he puts on old­style peep show per­for­mances, re­mind­ing lo­cal Tian­jin res­i­dents of days-gone-by.

Sun’s peep show box is as tall as a per­son and is built out of solid wood. In his opin­ion, con­struct­ing the twolay­ered box in­volved over­com­ing many tech­ni­cal is­sues. First, the “pulling” move­ment is caused by the use of a pul­ley sys­tem. Gen­er­ally, there are eight pic­tures in a box: when it is time to change the pic­ture, the per­former then pulls the string for the cor­re­spond­ing pul­ley and the pre­vi­ous pic­ture will be pulled up­wards, re­veal­ing the next one. Sun found it nec­es­sary to leave enough space be­tween the in­di­vid­ual pic­tures, oth­er­wise it would be im­pos­si­ble to pull the pic­tures cor­rectly. The box also makes use of levers: the small cym­bal and drum can be sounded at the same time by sim­ply pulling a string with­out hav­ing to be beaten. The drum and cym­bal, how­ever, are minia­turised ones mod­elled af­ter full- size ver­sions, and their con­struc­tion is by no means a sim­ple mat­ter. Fi­nally, in or­der that the pic­tures in the box could be seen clearly, Sun Zhen­hong tried out many dif­fer­ent kinds of lenses, be­fore he set­tled on those that could achieve the de­sired ef­fect.

The pic­tures Sun Zhen­hong pro­duced for his box are cen­tred around the theme of “Me­mories of Tian­jin,” in­clud­ing images of the old Drum Tower, old streets in Tian­jin, the “un­reg­u­lated area” in the South­ern Mar­ket, car­ry­ing lanterns dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val, the dis­ap­peared ferry and sec­tions of Tian­jin flooded dur­ing the Repub­lic of China pe­riod (1912–1949).

In the old days, per­form­ers would chant the lyrics, ex­plain­ing the story be­ing told in the pic­tures while “pulling” the pic­ture cards. Sun Zhen­hong also com­posed a story in Tian­jin di­alect to the rhythm of a bam­boo clap­per to in­tro­duce the old sights of Tian­jin. On hear­ing his lively re­count­ing of sto­ries about the city, peo­ple feel as if they have trav­elled back a cen­tury through time and are wit­ness­ing how peo­ple used to live.

As a pure form of folk art, peep shows tell a story and the his­tory be­hind it us­ing just a few pic­tures and arias. When movies and tele­vi­sion al­lowed au­di­ences to watch “real mov­ing images” on a screen, this “rus­tic form of movies” which re­lied more on au­di­ences lis­ten­ing than watch­ing, be­gan to die out. Nowa­days, be­sides the hand­ful of those still per­form­ing, this unique art form is mostly to be found in mu­se­ums.

Although peep shows have grad­u­ally been for­got­ten, their dis­tinc­tive charm has not been tar­nished by the pas­sage of time. They will al­ways be re­mem­bered for the cheers and laugh­ter they brought dur­ing a time when en­ter­tain­ment was in short sup­ply.

Look­ing in­side a peep show cabi­net

Pic­ture cards can be switched by pulling a string.

An ac­tor per­forms a peep show dur­ing a stage play de­pict­ing per­form­ing arts in old Bei­jing.

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