Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China.

Lately I’ve had blank spots in my brain.

I’ve been trying to think of a word for days. It’s the same word I had trouble with a few months ago. I know what it means. It sort of means “abstract.” And I know that it starts with IN, but then there is a hole in my thinking, and I can’t get any further. It’s not a difficult word, but it’s elusive. I can almost smell it, but it’s like I’m reaching into muddy water to grab a fish I cannot see. I almost touch it, but it’s not physical and slips through my fingers. I’m interested in this word because I see it often here in China when I’m visiting a museum or a cultural site. In fact, it is part of a common term here, and since I can’t grab the word, I can’t tell you what the term is.

A few days ago, I went to a cultural event, which got me wondering again what the slippery word is. The event was a shadow puppet play and came after a long day of teaching, and I thought that maybe I’d skip it, but I’m glad to report that I rallied after dinner and decided to go after all.

Shadow puppetry is an ancient art in China. Puppets are two dimensional jointed figures made of translucent leather and painted joyfully in intricate detail. Puppeteers use long sticks to hold the puppets against a lighted white screen of silk. Unlike the hand shadows we grew up with, these “shadows” are full color. Watching them, it is hard to believe that this is 2000-year-old technology. The colorful figures on the white screen look like a modern animation.

The puppeteers played three different stories for us. The first had an exciting battle scene. It was a little like a Punch and Judy show with lots of hitting with sticks and swords. Then one fellow threw his staff, which transformed into a dragon in midair. At some point, the temple flooded, and then people were swimming and crustaceans snapped at their legs while others climbed into boats and began rowing. The story was in Chinese, of course, so the details weren’t too clear to me, but it was very exciting. Another story was about the Monkey King, one of my favorite folk heroes (last year I saw him doing his mischievous and magical dance at the Chinese Cultural Fair at our campus), and there was also an exciting battle. This one had dragon-headed bipedal creatures in luxurious robes. During the battle they ditched their robes and transformed into actual dragons, flying sinuously through the sky. So much magic!

I was wishing to peek behind the screen to see the puppeteers, so you can imagine my joy when, during the intermission, the audience was invited to try the puppets ourselves. I chose a richly robed man with a pig’s snout. His arms were jointed at shoulder and elbow, and, with coaching, I was able to flip him from one side to the other so his profile would face right or left. Then he got in a fight with the dragon that the woman next to me was holding. I’m actually not sure what the outcome was, because I passed my puppet sticks to another.

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The story that I loved the best was about two Roosters and some trouble. A lone Rooster strutted between two craggy mountains at stage left and right. The puppet was very stylized, but at the same time, perfectly natural. And the puppeteer surely knows how a chicken moves, because I could almost believe it was my own rooster strutting in the yard. At stage center was a pile of stones. The Rooster took interest in something in the crack of the rock and began jabbing at it.

After some furious pecking, he pulled a wriggling centipede out and began to thrash it on the ground. After a few minutes of wild battle where it seemed the Rooster would soon win, the centipede arched over the rooster’s head and bit him on the crown of his comb. It must have been a painful bite because the Rooster let the centipede loose and bent to tend to his wound, which had now turned black. He put his neck down and mournfully stroked his comb with his foot.

Now comes another Rooster in different colors and acts out the same drama with the centipede with the same results. The centipede scurries back into his home in the rocks. After some kerfuffle, one of the roosters grabs the centipede again by the head, and the other grabs the tail. A tug of war ensues, and ... oh it looks like I’m out of space for my story, so you’ll just have to catch the next puppet show to see how it ends. Meanwhile, I’ll try to think of my mysterious word.

Let me know if you can figure out what it is. I hope you’ve enjoyed this few minutes of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Strut in Beauty; Express Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in the News Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small town newspaper. You can see photos and videos of the Shadow Play on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 81856.