Folk artist tries to revive fading art of peep show

A la yang pian show in Guangdong Province Photo: IC
A la yang pian show in Guangdong Province Photo: IC

Sun Zhenhong has been trying to revive a fading folk art, the peep show.

The show, known as la yang pian, gained popularity in the northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). They involve a showman dramatizing stories using pictures inside a box, while the audience peeps at the actions through a series of small holes.

“Chinese peep shows left an indelible mark on my childhood memory,” said Sun, 74. “They were popular in the old days when people were lacking entertainment.” However, the folk art has been gradually replaced by a slew of new audiovisual media, such as television and cinema.

After retiring as a mechanics teacher at Tianjin Machinery and Electric Industry School in 2000, Sun immersed himself in recreating the mystery of a peep show for youngsters. He would rush to the workshop around 2 or 3 a.m. when a new idea came to him.

With proficient mechanical skills, Sun successfully made five peep show boxes in different sizes over five years.

He displayed the first box he made in an exhibition hall in the culture center in Hexi District of Tianjin. It measured roughly 2 meters high and had three holes with a convex lens in the middle for people to peep inside.

“All the pictures were set into viewing positions by pulling corresponding strings. To ensure pictures do not interfere with each other, a pulley device was installed for precise control,” Sun said.

On the upper right corner of the box, he fixed three kinds of percussion instruments, a drum, gong and cymbal, controlled by a rope to make sounds simultaneously.

“Dismantling the old items and recombining components to make a peep show box gives it a sense of nostalgia,” Sun said.

The main body of the box was made of a drawer from his old wardrobe. The decorated curtain was selected from an old quilt cover, while the ornamental pattern was taken from an old clock.

Sun has taken his peep show to local temple fairs where he is surrounded by crowds of people exploring the mystery inside the box.

Chen Hao, 26, a crosstalk comedian, has been deeply attracted by Sun’s peep show since he watched one in 2012. He soon started to learn this nearly extinct folk art from Sun.

Sun and Chen founded a drama club in 2013, which now has seven members. Sun is responsible for making the peep show boxes, while younger members perform in public avenues in the city with the boxes.

The drama club has compiled a unique repertoire featuring Tianjin folk customs, involving characters and plots of traditional Chinese mythologies, some elements of Tianjin Kuaiban (a form of oral storytelling) and some specially written for children.

In May 2018, the peep show was listed as one of the representative projects of the intangible cultural heritage of Hexi District in Tianjin.

Cui Yaqian, deputy director with the intangible cultural heritage department of the District, said Chinese peep shows were a memory of the elder generations and a valuable cultural heritage in dire need of protection.

Sun is eager to carry forward the traditional art in innovative ways. “We intend to present 3D effects with the help of some high-tech elements in the future,” he said. Enditem

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