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Dwarfs Shadow Puppet Troupe

Photographer: Hwee Young How


'Longzaitian' or 'Dragon in the Sky' Shadow Puppet Troupe consists of close to 50 members who look like children but are actually dwarfs with an average age of 22 and height of 1.26 metres. Formed in 2008, the troupe started out with less than ten members but gradually grew in fame and stature, drawing many other dwarfs from all parts of China who seek to be accepted in a community of their own. The troupe provides training, food, accommodation and income for the members as well as a sense of belonging and pride in their work preserving the ancient art of shadow puppetry.


Dwarfs have traditionally been viewed as disabled people in China and are often discriminated by mainstream society. Due to their height, childlike voices and looks, they are frequently mistaken as children and are treated as such by colleagues and friends.


Says 20-year-old member Wang Jianling from Hunan Province who just joined the troupe four months ago, ‘I used to work in a computer software company but immediately quit my job and came here when I heard about this place. There is always a gap when I am with other normal people because of the height difference and they think of me as a child. Here however, I am with people like myself and I feel very comfortable and we can share our common thoughts and woes.’


It is not all that easy though to learn the ancient art of storytelling through puppets with shadow and light. Besides knowing how to manipulate the puppets smoothly, members have to learn to sing, dance, perform acrobatics, play musical instruments, and know how to make the puppets and props as well. The troupe members generally start practicing early at 7.30am until the end of the day with performances scheduled during the weekends at the China Shadow Puppet Culture and Art City near the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.


Says Liu Lixin, a shadow puppet master who has been teaching the art to members over the past four years, ‘The puppets, stage and props are all made in the standard size for normal people, so it is difficult for them as they have the bone structure and strength of children. But through perseverance and hard work, they have been able to conquer the difficulties.’