Chinese Shadow Puppet Play

Chinese shadow puppet play wins the heart of an audience by its lingering music, exquisite sculpture, brisk color and lively performance and gets a name as “a magic, lighting-like art”.



Music accompaniments are four string and south string instrument, bowed instrument, four-string moon-shaped instrument, drum, gong, flute, hand allegro and horn.

Nicknamed the business of the five, a shadow puppet troupe is made up of five people. One operates the puppets, one plays a horn, a suo-na horn, and a yu-kin (a kind of Chinese folk musical instrument), one plays banhu fiddle (a kind of Chinese folk musical instrument), one is in charge of percussion instruments, and one sings. This singer assumes all the roles in the puppet show, which of course is very difficult. That is not all; the singer also plays several of the over 20 kinds of musical instruments in a puppet show. These ancient musical instruments enhance this ancient folk art.

As shadow puppet plays are popular all over China and in the long-time evolving process in different areas, the styles and rhythms of the singing tunes absorbed the essence of operas, folk art forms, ballads and music. Therefore, various schools of shadow puppet plays have been formed.


Lively Performance


shadow puppet

A balladry from Shaan Xi Province described how the shadow puppeteer works.

Folk Shadow Play
Speaking behind paper partition screen,
Expressing variable feelings by shadows,
One shadow play actor can tell thousand years stories,
Both hands can operate millions of soldiers.

shadow puppet

The stage for shadow puppet is a white cloth screen on which the shadows of flat puppets are projected. Shadow puppet looks similar to paper-cut except that their joints are connected by thread so that they can be operated freely. The scene is simple and primitive; it is the consummate performance that attracts the audience. For example, a puppet can smoke and breathe out a smoke ring with operator help. In one drama, as a maid sits in front of a mirror, her reflection matches her actions.


Roles of Shadow Play


shadow puppet

Roles in shadow plays are the same with the Peking opera. Sheng, Dan, Jing, Mo, Chou all can be found in shadow play. The difference is that every ‘player’ consists of 11 parts including head, two body parts, two legs, two upper arms and lower arms as well as two hands. Drawn by the performers through controlling bars and threads, ‘players’ can do various kinds of vivid movements. Shadow play demands for high performing skills. The operator plays five puppets at the same time, each of which has three threads. Ten fingers handle 15 threads. No wonder the operator is compared to the 1000-hand Kwan-yin. Besides control three or four ‘players’ at a time, performers have to catch up with the tempo and musical accompany as well as pay attention to dialogue and singing. Hence, it is not an easy job to train a mature shadow play performer.


Popular Plays


The wonder of the shadow puppet play based on Chinese History and culture. If one is unfamiliar with the customs of northwest China, the value of the art is abated.

shadow puppet shadow puppet

In terms of the content, shadow puppet plays feature historical novels, folk legends, legal cases involving swordsmen, love stories, mythological stories, fables and modern costume plays. In terms of the length, there are highlights of plays, single-section plays and series, etc. Popular traditional plays include the Tale of the White Snake, the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl, Outlaws of the Marsh, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and The Creation of the Gods, etc. Modern costume plays and fairy tale or fable plays created between the revolutionary wartime and 1949 include the White-Haired Girl, Liu Hulan, Sea of Forest and Land of Snow, The Red Lantern and Mr. Gongguo, etc.

by Xiao Xiao @

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