Shadow Puppet Play The Precursor of Modern Movie

Shadow play is taken as an earliest ancestor of modern cinema; the unique artistic value makes it be reserved from the ancient time. It is a kind of drama in which silhouettes made of ox, sheep, donkey or other animal leathers are projected onto a white screen. The performer plays the characters behind the screen while singing the libretto to tell the story.

shadow puppet


History of Shadow puppet play

The Shadow puppet play has a history of over 2000 years, which originated during the Han Dynasty (B.C 202 – A.D 220) when one of the concubines of Emperor Wu died. The emperor was so devastated that ignored the affairs of state, and he summoned his court officers to bring his beloved back to life. The officers got an idea and made a shape of the concubine using donkey leather. Her joints were animated using 11 separate pieces of the leather, and adorned with painted clothes. Using an oil lamp they made her shadow move, bringing her back to life. After seeing the shadow puppet play, Emperor Wu began to recover. Then the love story was recorded in the book of “The History of the Han Dynasty”.

shadow puppet

The Shadow puppet play began to become quite popular in Song Dynasty (A.D 960 – A.D 1234). During the Ming Dynasty (A.D 1368 – A.D 1644) there were 40 to 50 shadow puppet play troupes in Beijing. In the late 13th century, Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271 – A.D1368), the shadow show became a recreation in the barracks of the Mongolian troops. It was spread by the conquering Mongols to distant countries like Persia, Arabia, Turkey and other Southeastern Asian countries.


Shadow Puppet Play in China


The shadow puppet is the wisdom of Chinese artists, and it is also a popular handiwork in China. It is widely spread in most regions in China, except Tibet and Xinjiang, with different styles of shadow puppet play in different places. However, the characters shaping and performance skills are all quite exquisite, with play themes including the Chinese ancient magic, myths, religions, monarchs, legal cases, wars, as well as talented scholars and pretty ladies, the secular life and etc.

shadow puppet

The shadow play was the earlier form of Chinese Cartoon, and to perform a great shadow play is no easy task for it takes considerable expertise in the fine arts, often requiring artists to perform multiple skills at once.

Nevertheless, performers find it rewarding because it brings the audience a lot of happiness. The major problem now is that the audience is aging fast, and the vast majority of young people do not really understand the ancient art form.


Shadow Puppet Play in other Countries


shadow puppet

The show began to spread to Europe in the mid 18th century, when French missionaries to China took it back to France in 1767 and put on performances in Paris and Marseilles, causing quite a stir. In time, the ombres chinoises, with local modification and embellishment, became the ombres francaises and struck root in the country.

At present, more than 20 countries are known to have shadow show troupes.

The principle methods of shadow performance adopted by the shadow puppet played an important leading role in the invention of the modern movie and the development of the movies and cartoons. Nowadays, the Chinese shadow puppet plays have been collected by the museums of many countries in the world. Meanwhile they are the best souvenir given by Chinese government officials to their foreign guests.

by Xiao Xiao @

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