China’s shadow play enjoys a time-honored history. It could be traced back to the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago. On top of wide circulation in China, shadow play is transmitted all across the globe. As early as in the 13th century, China’s shadow play was introduced to Persia, Arab, Turkey or Siam.
This scene isn’t strange for many people in China. Especially in the countryside, shadow play could be staged on every wedding or funeral occasion and during each festival. The most ancient colorful animations had taken over an important position in the lives of Chinese people long before film and TV were invented. So some people call shadow play an ancient type of Chinese “movie”.
The shadow play enjoys a time-honored history and is circulated extensively. It could be traced back to the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago, became popular in the Sui and Tang Dynasties and came at the height of power and splendors in the Song Dynasty in the 10th century. Tradition has it that the emergence of shadow play is connected with Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (from 156 BC to 87 BC). After his wife surnamed Li died, the Emperor always missed her. After learning this, a necromancer alleged that he would help the Emperor see Lady Li again. The Emperor was excited and called him in. Then he set up a curtain at night and invited the Emperor to watch from the distance. Then, a beauty like Lady Li appeared in the curtain, sitting down or standing up ever and again, showing her graceful and vivid figure. As a matter of fact, this is the image of figure made of leather after flashing from light. Later, thick paper or leather is used to cut the shape and flashed out through light, which evolves into today’s shadow play.
All people speak highly of shadow play after watching it. Semi-transparent leather is engraved into various figures and then painted with patterns and colors. When the light passes through the leather, another side of the curtain would appear colorful and vivid figures, flowers, birds and buildings. Artists control the leather figure skillfully behind the scene, accompanied by songs or musical instrument performance to vividly perform rich folklores and fairy tales. Jumping leather people amid light and shadow curtain, and melodious, ancient singing styles add to the greatness of shadow play and make it much sought-after.
On top of wide circulation in China, shadow play is transmitted all across the globe. As early as in the 13th century, China’s shadow play was introduced to Persia (the old name of Iran), Arab, Turkey, Siam (the old name of Thailand), Burma, Malaysia, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and other Asian and European countries as cultural exchanges were launched between the East and the West.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, who lived in the 18th century, recalled his experience of watching shadow play when he was a child in his biography: when I was four years old, grandma would perform it on the Christmas Eve as entertainment. She carried figures made of leather to showcase tragedies, arousing our naive creation, especially my impression on such a form of opera, from which I benefit a lot in my life time. In addition, Charlie Chaplin and other great figures also spoke highly of the shadow play.
“All things can be sung by one mouth and millions of soldiers are performed by two hands”. Shadow play is probably a folk art that can best demonstrate the lingering charm of a combination of vision and actuality in Chinese culture. What artists use are actual leather figures and what speculators see is virtual image. Several simple leather figures, props, and the singing and background music performed by the artists can stage complex scenes and fantastic stories and plots.
Such a way of expression by combining virtual and actual scenes makes the props of the performers simple which can be moved frequently, becoming one of the major reasons behind its wide-spread circulation. Either in theatre or open plaza or courtyard, shadow play can be staged after setting up the viewing window, curtain and lamphouse. Composed of six or seven artists and one box of leather figures, a troupe can perform as many as forty to fifty plays. From this, it can be imagined what kind of challenge they’re facing with.
In order to ensure agile movement in performance, all fours and head of leather figures are joined by lines after engraving. One shadow puppet is always controlled by five bamboo rods during the performance, meaning that artists shall have superb sleight of hand. In the meantime, they are speaking, reading or singing, and applying gong and drum by feet to show ever-changing scenes and figures with varied postures. The play shall be specifically changed based on situations. For instance, Goddess Marriage is necessary when marrying a lady and Eight Immortals at the Birthday Party is used in birthday celebration for the elderly. Generally, a play lasts several hours. So artists in the team shall bear in mind dozens of scripts.
Though with a unified name, shadow play is different in operatic vocal music and modeling in different regions across China. And the vocal music style and rhythm of shadow play take in the essence of local operas and folk songs and culminated in diversified schools. For instance, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Peking, Tangshan, Northern Sichuan or Chenlong shadow plays, each of them enjoys unique flavor and characters.
China’s shadow play has covered a long journey with Chinese people over the years as an enchanting part of Chinese culture. With fine bamboo rods, changing light shadow in place, shadow play talks about the stories of lives and records the history passed down by generations of shadow play performers.
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 20. Volume 3. May 2012.
View/Download the print issue in PDF