Peep Shows in Beijing and Tianjin
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.
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.