Making Chinese Shadow Puppet

A shadow puppet takes as many as 24 procedures and more than 3000 cuts. The process for making the puppets is as follows.

First, remove the fur and blood from a sheepskin, donkey skin or other animal skin; Shadow puppets are made of leather for the simple reason that leather is much lighter, easier to play and carry around.

shadow puppet

Second, apply chemical treatment to the skin, making it thinner and semi-transparent;

shadow puppet

Third, apply tung oil on the skin;

shadow puppet

And fourth, engrave the skin into your desired images.

The trunk, head and limbs of a puppet are separately carved but joined together by thread so that each part could be controlled by the operator to simulate human movements.

The height of finished puppets can be as tall as 55 centimeters and as short as around 10 centimeters.


The Design of the Figures

The design of the figures follows traditional moral evaluation and aesthetics.

To overcome the limit imposed when only the profile of puppets can be seen, shadow puppets use exaggeration and heavy dramatization. The faces and the costumes of puppets are vivid and humorous. The flowery color, the elegant sculpting and smooth lines make shadow puppets not only props but also artwork.

There are two kinds of shadow puppet face, full face and outlined face. The former is applying color to a piece of leather to show the character of the figure, which is usually colored red or black, while the later is hollowed-out facial outline, which requires an exceptional skill in craftsmanship. Regular shadow puppet face is just an outline, known as “half face”, sometimes clown and villain are carved into the outline with both eyes can be seen. The body of shadow puppet figure is engraved using chisel, which has variety of designs, such as snow flake, fish scale, pine needle, etc.

shadow puppet

The figures all have a large head and a small body, which tapers down. A man has a big head and a square face, broad forehead and a tall strong body without being too masculine. A woman has a thin face, a small mouth and slim body without being too plump. Effeminacy and gentleness are the norm for Chinese beauty. The hair and dresses of female figures are usually adorned with patterns like flowers, grass, clouds and phoenixes and patterns like dragons, tigers, water and clouds are usually used on male figures.

The audience can also tell a figure’s character by seeing his mask.

shadow puppet

The leather puppets are painted with various colours to show their different qualities as kind or wicked, beautiful or ugly. Like the masks in Beijing Opera, a red mask represents uprightness, a black mask, fidelity, and a white one, treachery.

The positive figure has long narrow eyes, a small mouth and a straight bridge of nose, while the negative one has small eyes, a protruding forehead and sagging mouth. The clown has a circle around his eyes, projecting a humorous and frivolous air even before he performs any act.

shadow puppet

Lavish background pieces including architecture, furniture, vessels and auspicious patterns are featured in shadow puppet shows.

Earthy art that it is, shadow puppet shows impress audiences by their vividness and refinement. A framed puppet can be a novel and pleasant souvenir.

by Xiao Xiao @

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