Known as the precursor to modern movies, shadow play is a kind of dramatic storytelling in which silhouettes made of animal leather shapes are projected onto a white screen. The human performer manipulates the leather character puppets and light source behind the screen while singing the tune and text of the story. The storytelling, most often blending Chinese history and culture and celebrated by children and adults alike, is accompanied by fanciful music and combines China’s rich cultural history of song and word. Opera, storytelling, fine arts, and history come together as one in the shadow plays.
The shadow puppets used are typically made of transparent plastic, or buffalo and donkey’s leather. Talented Chinese artists carve out the intricate contours of the designs onto the selected material and then dye them in bright colors. The joints are made with light threading for flexible movement. These transparent puppets, against simple backgrounds and sceneries, come alive beautifully under a lamp light. Shadow puppets are the products of a very traditional and celebrated art form by wise Chinese artists and their handiwork is well known particularly in China’s northern cities.
The music used is largely created using a variety of stringed instruments, as well as drums, flutes, gongs, and horns. Other local native instruments are also used relative to the region they are performed.
Shadow play dramas have a history of over 2,000 years, first originating during the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD). It is said that when one of the concubines of Emperor Wu died, he came inconsolable and was completely devastated. He even ignored the affairs of state and instead ordered his court officers to bring his beloved back to life. To satisfy his royal highness, they had the idea to recreate the shape of the concubine using donkey leather. Her joints were animated using 11 separate pieces of leather, and her beauty was recharged with painted clothes. Using an oil lamp, they made her shadow move, bringing her back to life. After seeing the shadow play, Emperor Wu and his heart began to recover. This love story is recorded in the book titled, “The History of the Han Dynasty.”
During the Song Dynasty, shadow plays became particularly popular. By the time of the Ming Dynasty, there were 40 to 50 shadow play troupes in Beijing alone. In the late 13th century, in the reign of the Yuan Dynasty, the puppetry became a source of entertainment and recreation in the barracks of the nighty Mongolian troops. As the Mongols swept across the continent and conquered Asia, they spread the popularity of shadow play entertainment to distant countries such as Persia (Iran), Arabia, Turkey, and various Southeast Asian countries.
There is even an iconic old ballad from the Shaan Xi Province that describes what shadow play is:
Folk Shadow Play
Speaking behind paper partition screens,
Expressing variable feelings by shadows,
One shadow play actor can tell thousands of years of stories,
Both hands can operate millions of soldiers.
In recent years throughout many areas of China, certain types of plays and the art of shadow performance are nearing extinction. As the generations modernize, the old traditions begin to fade into history. Fortunately, however, shadow puppetry is alive and well-preserved especially in Huanxian County in the northwest Gansu Province where there are still more than 90 active shadow play groups, all of which are made up of local farmers. In 2003 this art form was named one of the first 10 key preserved intangible cultural heritages in the country. The county is the birthplace of the Daoqing style of shadow plays, a classic and easy-to-understand style.
Daoqing plays involve only a single performer who manipulates all of the characters and impressively conducts the orchestra at the same time. Shi Chenglin, a famous artist from Huanxian County, has performed plays in more than 10 countries including Italy, Canada, and the United States. Since 2005, the Huanxian County Shadow Play Troupe has staged more than 50 Daoqing Shadow Plays in over 20 cities worldwide. In Italy, the popularity of the performances have soared and audience members swarm to the stage following the performance, eager to find out what happens behind the screen. Overall, the shows have sparked strong and wide interest among European audiences, winning the traditional storytelling and art form many fans.