A shadow puppet play is a form of folk opera that involves cutting animal skin or hard paper into figures and using them in a performance in front of an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images.
Accompanied by live music, performers behind the screen manipulate the figures while narrating a story to a local tune.
As an ancient folk art form, it is said to have originated in the Warring States Period, prospered in the Han and Song dynasties and then spread to West Asia and Europe during the Yuan Dynasty.
1. A story about its historical origin
Chinese shadow play has a recorded history that's over 2,000 years old. A love story from "Hanshu (History of Han)" reveals the origin of the art.
When Lady Li, a beloved concubine of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, died from illness, the emperor was so sad and in no mood for anything. One of his ministers, Li Shaoweng, once saw a child playing with a doll and he noticed that the shadow of the doll reflected on the ground seemed lifelike.
Inspired, Li went back home and made a figure of Lady Li using cotton and silk, and placed sticks on the figure's hands and feet to make it easy to manipulate.
When night came, he put up a curtain, lit a candle, and invited the emperor to sit before the curtain. Li manipulated the figure from behind the curtain. The emperor felt like he was seeing Lady Li again and was very happy. The shadow puppet play became the emperor's favorite pastime.
2. How to make a shadow puppet?
Different places have different ways of making a shadow puppet, but in general it has to go through several processes, including selecting a skin, making the skin, drawing a sketch, carving, coloring, ironing and embellishing.
First, remove the hair on the animal skin, clean it and using special techniques, make the skin thinner and semitransparent. Then coat the skin with tung oil and draw images of different opera characters on the skin. Next, cut out the figures on the skin with knives of different sizes, and then paint them in different colors.
Female figures are always carved with flower, cloud and phoenix patterns, and hair accessories are specially and elaborately designed. Male figures usually dragon and tiger patterns. Shadow figures will range in height from 10 cm to 55 cm.
3. How to perform shadow puppetry?
The limbs and head of a shadow figure are put together using threads to make it easy to move. A puppet is always manipulated by using five bamboo sticks.
After the puppets are ready, a white curtain will be put up, which is always a piece of white cloth one square meter in size. It is polished with fish oil to look smooth and lucent.
Now it's show time for the artists, although they are behind the screen.
When artists perform, they not only skillfully manipulate the figures using their hands, but also sing or narrate and sometimes, they even have to hit a drum using their feet.
Manipulation and singing skills are the most important factors contributing to a good shadow puppet play. Some masters can manipulate seven to eight figures at the same time.
Puppet plays usually tell dramatic versions of traditional fairy tales and myths. With the changing shadows on the curtain, beautiful or intense music, attractive narration and light effects, a shadow play can be thrilling and splendid.
Props for shadow puppetry are small and portable, and the performance can take place almost anywhere, so it was popular among people in past times.
4. How is shadow puppetry being preserved for future generations?
Now that people have more entertainment options, it's no wonder the traditional art is declining.
The traditional art is facing a challenge. As the market shrinks, audiences become smaller and its future is threatened. Training in the art is intensive and the pay is low, so young people are not willing to learn.
The Ministry of Culture has formulated policies to foster its development, and many puppetry lovers are making their efforts to preserve the heritage.
Shadow puppetry was listed within the country's first batch of National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006, and is recognized as a world heritage by UNESCO in 2011. Still, the preservation work should be carried through, as the folk art needs to be cherished and passed forward.