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.

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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”.

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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.

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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


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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.

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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.

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

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Third, apply tung oil on the skin;

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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