The Lost Whimsy of Chinese Shadow Play

Chinese shadow play is the ancient art of shadow puppetry, a form of entertainment using paper puppets whose shadows are projected onto a lit up backdrop to create the appearance of moving images. Though the exact origins of Chinese shadow play are unknown, it is thought to date back to sometime around the Han (206 A.D. – 226 B.C.) or Tang (618 – 907 A.D.) Dynasties. According to one historical legend, an emperor was greatly saddened after one of his favorite concubines died. So, several court officials created a puppet with hinged arms and legs using donkey leather and paint. They then lit an oil lamp to display her shadow, bringing her “back to life” to please emperor.

The tradition of shadow puppetry spread as a form of entertainment, first through China, and then beyond to central and south Asia. It was an extremely popular form of amusement during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D.) when there were purportedly more than 40 puppet troupes in Beijing alone. Special forms of music were also written to accompany the puppet shows and some have evolved into modern forms Chinese opera.

The stories told through shadow play are traditionally about popular ancient events, such as warring kingdoms, Buddhist escapades, fairy tales and popular myths. Even today, the puppets are still made of leather with hinges for arms and legs. Unlike other forms of puppetry, shadow puppets are not suspended from strings, but are propped onto sticks controlled by the puppeteer from behind or sideways. When in motion, they take on a whimsical, lifelike quality.

The puppets themselves are generally depictions of humans, or sometimes animals, and are ornately decorated and painted with a variety of dazzling colors. Usually, the characters are dressed in traditional costuming and depict only a profile of the character, as opposed to a 3-dimensional image.

The puppets are moved behind an illuminated, translucent backdrop screen that is most often made of paper. The earliest screens were made of mulberry paper, but today, they are usually made from more common materials like tissue or rice paper or plain white cloth.

The scene sometimes includes other props and background materials, such as furniture, ladders, pagodas, buildings or plants. The props are also made from leather and painted to enhance the atmosphere of the scene being created. The puppeteer must be very skillful to maneuver the puppets as they interact with each other and the props.

Shadow puppetry has been featured in several modern films. The most notable is the 1994 film, To Live, directed by Zhang Yimou. In the film, the main character earns his living as a shadow puppeteer, but eventually falls victim to the Cultural Revolution and has his puppets and staging taken from him.

Although the art of shadow play faces extinction in China, where more modern forms of entertainment like TV and cinema have taken over, it is still possible to experience a shadow puppet show in some towns, or to purchase shadow puppets as souvenirs.


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