For years, Lu Defeng fought back hurt when people visited the warehouse where he worked as an administrator and asked for his parents. Lu is a dwarf, a minority long condemned to lonely lives and lowly jobs in China.
But Lu, 25, found a job with Dragon in the Sky, a Beijing shadow puppet troupe that only employs dwarves, giving them fulfilling jobs and helping to keep an ancient tradition alive.
“It’s difficult for us short people to find a job. We are not tall enough or strong enough,” said Lu.
Dwarfs have traditionally faced discrimination on the mainland and have fared no better in an increasingly modern and competitive economy.
But shadow puppetry is a niche in which dwarfs enjoy a comparative advantage.
Performers need to be relatively short to manipulate cut-out characters held up in front of an oil lamp that projects their shadows onto a paper screen.
The plays are an ancient form of Chinese narrative, often used to tell myths and fairytales for children, and remain popular.
Founded in 2008 and run by 66-year-old Liu Lixin, who is of normal height, Dragon in the Sky has recruited dozens of dwarves from across the mainland. The average height of troupe members is 1.26 metres.
“Deep down, these people feel they are inferior and humble,” said Liu. “When they come to this troupe we tell them we offer a job and a source of income.”
“This group of people is now very happy, harmonious and united,” said Liu. “They work with more and more energy.”
It takes much practice to learn how to match the movements of the puppets with music and narration, as well as to coordinate with other performers. But when all goes well, the puppets move across the screen like real people.
“It was really cool. I think they practise a lot,” said Diane Kim, 9, a student at an international school who came to a recent performance.
For many of the dwarves, the troupe is now like family.
“I felt like there was only me on the planet,” Wu Chunxiao, 22, who joined three years ago, speaking of his previous life.
“It’s like a sheep finding its flock. I’m very happy to live and work together every day.”