China — Puppeteer With a Purpose

Wn hour-and-a-half from downtown Beijing, is a residential building in the Tai-Hing district, Ming Li lives with his performance troupe, known as Ming Li’s Shadow Puppet Group. He stands about 4’7, and speaks with a soft voice. On this day, as he greets me, he is concerned about keeping his dream alive: he owes one of the performers more than a month’s salary. But later, after a successful performance in Shanghai, the financial situation takes a turn for the positive.

A group of little people stand inside the crowded house. Ming Li sits among them, talking. It is a warm day, but the white curtain at the window blocks the sunlight from coming into the room. The people all have growth hormone deficiency (GHD), a medical condition caused by problems arising in the pituitary gland; they also happen to have special talents and perform in Ming-Li’s Little Ant Shadow Puppet Theater.

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Ming Li did not graduate high school and spent a long time wondering what he would do for a career. He worried that his height would limit his choices. He has spent time as a bellboy, a waiter, a bartender and a cashier. But those positions don’t pay very well, and he worried that he would never be able to command a good salary. So, while earning the same salary without a raise for many years, he continued to ask himself, ‘What can I do?’ Many of his friends, who also have GHD, urged him to just be happy with what he had.

In 2008, however, Ming Li got an opportunity to make a change in his life. He met the leader of the traditional Shadow Puppet Theater Group, Hai Luk, who asked Ming Li if he was interested in learning about the art of shadow puppetry. Ming Li said “yes,” and Hai Luk started to teach him the secrets of this traditional art form.

Though he had a lot to lose, Ming Li decided to quit his job at a print shop to focus on shadow puppetry. His family complained, worried that he would not be able to support them doing puppetry. But Ming Li was determined to achieve his dreams and a sense of personal fulfillment.

He continued working with Hai Luk’s Shadow Puppet Theater Group. At the beginning, Ming Li was not confident, but he kept practicing and began to improve very quickly. What most people take three to five months to learn, Ming Li mastered in one week. In three months, he was ready to perform on stage. Hai Luk was very impressed with Ming Li’s first performance, surprised that he could master such a challenging skill.

Ming Li not only acquired a skill, but also gained self-actualization and reached his full potential. He was even more satisfied because he felt genuine appreciation from the audience, which motivated him to stay with it, despite any doubts he had.

Sadly, Ming Li’s dream began to unravel when there was a disagreement between the master and the investor in the theater. The investor wanted to decrease the time for rehearsal and increase the number of performances, but the master did not agree with that idea, and the two argued nonstop. Ming Li was really disturbed by the situation, and decided to leave the Hai Luk’s Shadow Puppet Theater Group.

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Ming Li and the vice director, both in their mid-thirties, resigned at the same time and started to think about what they could do next. Finding another job was difficult. Then Ming Li remembered a person who told him to call if he needed help. This person was one of the teachers in the theater group that Ming Li had worked with before. Ming Li was asked to gather three to four performers to form a new shadow puppet group. Then they rented an old rundown basement where the group all lived and practiced together with the master who is in his sixties. In 2009, there were five performers in the group.

With financial support from friends and family, they practiced for a whole year before their first performance. With more responsibilities came better effort and greater strength. In the meantime, Ming Li also needed to worry about making a living. When they could no longer afford to rent the basement, they had to move to the countryside.

Under these most difficult circumstances, there came an opportunity to give their first performance. They were all very nervous and anxious. However, the performance was a success. Later on, the troupe became famous and received lots of invitations to perform in business, schools and many other districts.

Nowadays, Ming Li’s Shadow Puppet Group can put on a variety of productions, including children plays, fairytales and dramas. In 2011, the group performed in South Korea and received an award from the local mayor.

Ming Li keeps tinkering with the plays to keep them fresh; he’s added singers, dancers, acrobat and masks that complement some of the costumes. Ming Li’s group continues to become more famous as more people with GHD from all over the country arrive, eager to join the group. Some of Ming Li’s friends do not think he should accept everyone who shows up, but Ming Li tries to help as many as he can to earn a living by performing or helping out with the troupe. These days, it has 13 performers all living together in a small apartment.

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Ming Li has devised an even bigger plan for which he will need more assistants to make his dream come true: He intends to create an organization for people with disabilities to not only perform, but also to create arts and crafts. Beyond the puppet show, he will incorporate more music, dance and drama. Ming Li, who once believed that he was a bad manager, is achieving his dream, step by step.

by Fan Bai

Articles in the William H. Macy Issue; Senator Harkin — Rethink Childhood Restraint Practice; Ashley Fiolek — Sending 2012 Out With a Bang; Humor — Trying to (Maybe) Be More Loving; Children’s Book — Rewriting a Difficult Childhood; My Brother — My Secret; China — Puppeteer With a Purpose; Long Haul Paul — New Column by a Biker With MS; DRLC — Making the Obamacare Fair for All; William H Macy — Enjoying This Stage of His Life; Geri Jewell — Last Minute 2013 Resolutions; Haitian Leader — Changing Attitudes on Disability; A Mother’s Poem — My Daughter’s Ability; marketability — An eSSENTIAL Insert; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences… subscribe


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