Tricia Hairston (R), principal of Paint Branch Elementary School, tries to perform Fujian Puppetry at Paint Branch Elementary School in the Prince George's County, Maryland, the United States, March 20, 2019. (Xinhua/Liu Jie)
by Xiong Maoling, Jin Yuelei
WASHINGTON, March 22 (Xinhua) -- When Chen Lihui, the performer of Fujian Puppetry, a Chinese performing art, deftly maneuvered an 18-inch puppet to move his head back and forth, perform a high kick, and wipe the dust off his hat, nearly 200 kids in the room burst into laughter, unable to refrain from exploding with excitement.
Chen, from Zhangzhou city, Fujian province of China, performed the fascinating traditional art to the students and faculty of Paint Branch Elementary School in the Prince George's County of the U.S. state of Maryland Wednesday.
"It's almost (as if) you can have a connection to the puppets. He tells his stories through arts and movements," Tricia Hairston, principal of the school, told Xinhua.
Fujian Puppetry, which dates back to more than 1,500 years ago, is listed as a national intangible cultural heritage, Chen said. As one of the major genres, Zhangzhou puppet show features Peking opera characters expressed through exquisite wood carvings and lifelike performances.
Chen, who is especially adept at playing clown characters, said he was overwhelmed by the kids' enthusiasm.
"It's the first time they saw traditional Chinese puppet show. They were so curious about it, they kept saying wow, wow, wow!" he said.
After the performance, Chen invited a few students to try for themselves, offering them dozens of different puppets, which filled the large suitcase he brought all the way from China. Kids from pre-kindergarten through third grade shot a volley of questions. "What is this character?" "Do you have to remember all the moves?" "How many years have you been doing this?"
Chen began learning puppetry at a local art school in Fujian in the early 1980s.
"You have to practice on basic skills for three years before you can touch a puppet," he said, adding that one of the most important skills is to move fingers precisely as needed.
In a prior session, Chen performed puppetry to higher-grade students at the elementary school. He also held a workshop for a few teachers on the same day.
"I'm very excited," said the principal. "It allowed teachers to really embrace a new way of integrating the arts into the Chinese culture and really help our students have a robust, rigorous learning program."
About five years ago, the school started its Chinese immersion program.
Prince George's County is one of the seven Maryland counties on Chen's 11-day U.S. trip that concluded Thursday. The artist also visited universities, schools and local art councils in counties including Cumberland, Wicomico and St. Mary's.
"The puppets came to life and Mr. Chen was fantastic at enabling this," said Betty McGinnis, president of the non-profit World Artists Experiences, the organizer of these events, adding that the beautiful art form captured people of all ages.
"Children's eyes would light up. Giggles abound. This made his programs magical. Adults too, became wide-eyed and childlike as they played with the puppets," she said.
McGinnis said what struck her most was how the Chinese artist became one-with-the-puppet while he was performing.
Chen stayed with local host families during the trip, and went to attend a musical at a college in Allegany County, making the experience memorable for the artist, who had traveled to over 20 countries to perform his puppet show.
"In the past, when the performance was over, I immediately left, the audience didn't know me, nor did I know them. This time, I was able to interact with so many people, and to experience real American life. It feels so different," Chen said.
"Everyone would like to have had him for a longer time," McGinnis said. "Everyone realized that in this age of technology, this is a wonderful way to step aside and both enjoy and learn in life."
McGinnis said that locals realized that the puppet arts could be a great means of communication, calling Chen a beautiful artist, a powerful teacher and communicator.
"We hope for his return someday," she said.