Arts >Opera
Shadow Play
Shadow play (also referred to as lamp shadow play) is a folk opera where stories are performed on stage with movable figurines of paper, animal fur, or paper plates. It is typically accompanied by a band. According to historical records, shadow play dates back to the Warring States Period. It became prosperous in the Han, Tang, and Song Dynasties, and reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty. In the Yuan Dynasty, it was introduced to West Asia and Europe.
Shadow play - 皮影戏 (Píyǐngxì)

If you walk through the streets of Xi'an, especially in the city centre near the South Gate, you will find a lot of nice artefacts related to the culture of Shaanxi Province. We want to explain one of them because in our humble opinion, it represents the old culture of Shaanxi Province best. Ⅰ.Origin There are some different theories about the origin of the Chinese shadow-play. ⅰ. Some people think the first shadow-play figures were invented to illustrate Buddhist sermons, first made of paper, then later of leather. You can find, for instance, a whole set of shadow-play figures in the “German Leather Museum” in Offenbach showing very detailed depictions all the tortures of the “Buddhist Hell”. ⅱ. Others think it has its origin in the marionette theatre of Shaanxi Province. The unintended shadows of the marionettes gave the players the idea to create a two-dimensional theatre. ⅲ. The next opinion about the origin of shadow-play is that the shadow-plays were invented by people who used the “lantern of galloping horses”, a paper drum with a candle in the centre, projecting the shadows of the figures onto the screen. ⅳ. Another theory says the hand shadow-play of Southern China might be the origin, until now we can find this form of shadow-play in Guangzhou (Canton). Ⅱ. History The shadow-play is mentioned very early in Chinese history. The great historian Sima Qian of Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) wrote about a man named Shaoweng who “revived” the emperor's dead wife Wang for him while sitting behind a curtain and using “magic practices”. In other anecdotes from the Tang Dynasty, which we can read in the “Fragments from the Northern Dream Lake” of Beimeng Suoyang and in the “Lost Stories for the Emperor” of Gao Yanxiu, there is the first mention of a candle as the light source. The first historically explicit description of the shadow-play is to be found in the Song Dynasty in the book “About the Origin of Things” by Gao Cheng. He wrote, that in the time of Emperor Renzong (1023-1063) there were a lot of plays about the “Three Empires”. The first schools of shadow-players were founded, and the plays changed to a real professional theatre form. In the Song Dynasty the plays were mostly about historical topics. Under the Mongolian emperors of the Yuan Dynasty, the shadow-play spread widely through the whole of China and to Central Asia and Southeast Asia, too. In the Ming Dynasty, the topics of the plays changed to feature more Buddhist themes, often the stories were taken from the “Treasure Rolls” or Baoquan. The height of the shadow-play was in the end of Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. It differed into regional flavours, the topics changed to more popular stories or novels, like “The Journey to the West” or “The White Snake”, which was a Beijing Opera, too. Because the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was a time of Manchurian domination, lots of the plays voiced social criticism about the foreign rulers, so the Manchurians reacted with suppression of the players. After the Revolution in 1911, the shadow-play lost its significance, and the cinema took its place. Some of the Manchurian nobles sold the most beautiful sets to Europe or the U.S. So, in the “German Leather Museum” in Offenbach we find the most complete collection of old shadow-play figures, e.g. a whole set of the emperor Qianlong's figures and another one of a Manchurian prince. A wonderful film about the shadow-play of this time is director Zhang Yimou's “Life” (Huozhe). He is from Xi'an, so the film has a strong Shaanxi taste. The shadow-players had a very low social rank in old times and their successors to the third link were not allowed to take part in the imperial public service exams. In 1920 the Taiwanese government fixed a system of 18 social ranks, the players were No. 11, one rank worse than the prostitutes. Today the shadow-play has been revived and carries a new cultural significance. In all big cities you can find theatres in different styles. Ⅲ. Preparation of the Figures The oldest figures were made of paper. Later, parchment was the widely used material. In the northeast parchment of donkey skin (Chagrin) was used, while in the West cow skin was more common. So the techniques of preparation were different. The skin was watered and fixed onto a wooden or waxen board. Then the figures were cut out. After new watering and drying, the skin was burnished with so-called date wood knives. Then the fine intern pieces were cut out. The artist used knives of different shapes, but in the west hollow punches were in use because the cow skin was thicker and harder to cut. Then both sides of the figures were coloured with ink, and the pieces linked with strings of catgut (this is the difference to Indonesian figures, they are linked with horn buttons). Ⅳ. Playing Techniques The figures are moved by wooden or bamboo sticks, fixed on the limbs. The most important is the so called “life stick”, which leads the whole figure. The figures are pressed very closely against a screen; otherwise, the shadows would be blurred. A skilled player can move up to four figures at a time. Up to five players are behind the screen, and they get a helping hand from their students and co-players. An “organiser” manages the entry of the instruments. In the second row, we see the musicians. Traditionally, we have two sihu (four-string violin) and a sanxian (another kind of violin with three strings), a hulutou (a kind of clarinet made of a calabash), and a bamboo traverse flute. Not only do the musicians sing, but the players sing too. Mostly they memorise the whole text of the play, an achievement if you realise that most plays can last several hours! Ⅴ. Topics We find historical plays, lasting hours and hours, along with love and ghost stories, criminal stories, stories about wars and battles, Taoist legends, and mythological and humorous plays. There are plays of social criticism and Beijing Opera topics like “The White Snake”, “The Journey to the West”, “The Generals of the House of Yang” or “The Investiture of the Immortals”. In Xi'an there are shadow-play theatres at: ⅰ. 易俗大剧院 (Yìsú Dàjùyuàn) on North Avenue ⅱ. “高家大院” (Gāojiā Dàyuàn) at the North Gate of Muslim Quarter (回民街) 144 号. Here the entrance is only 15 RMB If you want to travel back in time and have an interesting evening like the Chinese nobles and common people had a hundred years ago, you will not regret engaging yourself with the shadow-play. But you should read the play first to learn the story, so you have enough time to concentrate on the tiny details.

History of Chinese Shadow Play

According to a survey made by the late writer Sun Kaidi, Chinese shadow play dated back to the mid-or late Tang Dynasty, or the later Five Dynasties (907-960). During that period, it served as a media for the preaching of Buddhist Dharma of transmigration and retribution. In temples, shadow figures were used as the supposed souls of the dead when their sin was expiated after death by monk preachers in charge of public service. During the Song Dynasty, it became one type of the prosperous folk arts, combined with the genre of popular entertainment mainly consisting of talking and singing. According to the Records of the Origins of Events by Gao Cheng of the Song Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Renzong, there were some people who could tell Romance of the Three Kingdoms stories or make puppets for a shadow play adapted from the stories. Hence the show of images of the wars among the kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu has been handed down to the present. In An Account of the Capital's Wonders published in the Song period, a general description can be found of the materials that were used to make shadow puppets and the development of their variations as well as the contents of performance. It says: "The shadow show is played by people in the capital with figures and patterns carved and cut out from white paper in the initial stage and later on from painted sheep's skin. And its text of dialogue is quite like a narrative textbook of history." The capital referred to here was Bianliang (today's Kaifeng of Henan Province), the then capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). In the painting entitled "The Festival of Pure Brightness on the River" by Zhang Zeduan, a well known Song Dynasty genre artist, a puppet show and the like can be seen as an entertainment activity enjoyed by the folks in the capital of Bianliang. During the Song period, evidence for the prosperous shadow theater can also be obtained from the record of a newly emerging trade of professional craftsmen who carved and made shadow puppets. This professional trade was recorded in the Former Events in Wulin. Wulin was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and was also known as Lin'an (now Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province). This proves that the shadow theater was further developed in the period from the Northern Dynasty to the Southern Dynasty. As the demand grew, craftsmen gradually formed a professional trade. At that time, there were different types of shadow play. In the chapter titled "Capital's Entertainment Center and the Industry of Arts and Handicrafts" in the book The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendors Past, the record says, "Dingyi and Shouji play a kind of 'qiaoying show'." In the book An Account of the Capital's Wonders, under the entry of "Miscellaneous Handicrafts," a few words say: "There is a kind of hand-operating shadow play." According to Former Events in Wulin, "A sort of show staged in a small theater, and played by artists, is known as 'the great shadow show,' which is usually welcomed by children and its performance continues without stop in the whole evening." In the musical score of the southern type of quyi (a type of verse for singing), there was also a melody to accompany the performance of a "great shadow show." The Chinese character "qiao" meant the word "disguise" at the time. Various art performances in the then entertainment centers included a sort of qiaoxiangpu, or a comic wrestling. In the qiaoying show, actors would imitate some movements of figures in shadow show. They would perform a burlesque to raise a laugh among the audience. If shadow play at the time had not been so popular in society, the qiaoying show would have never emerged. "Hand shadow show," taken literally, probably means to use hands to make various silhouette shapes on a screen, just like a game played by people of today using their hands to make various animal shapes before a light source to form silhouettes on a white wall. Or maybe it is just a small-scale shadow show with both hands. The "great shadow show" has been specified as a show played by artists. In the light of the historical records, we may guess and imagine the situation of how some types of dramas in the Song and Yuan dynasties took in nourishment from the movements and music of puppet and shadow shows. The rulers of the Yuan Dynasty took shadow show as a pastime in their Imperial Court and military barracks. The army of Genghis Khan made a vast expedition across the expansive Euro-Asian continent. Along with the expedition, Chinese shadow show was also brought to many Arabic countries in the Persian Gulf area. And later it was brought into Turkey as well as to many countries in Southeast Asia. In the early 14th century, the Persian historian Rashideg, telling an interesting episode in the history of exchange of shadow shows between China and Persia, said, "When the son of Genghis Khan came to the throne, he dispatched actors and artists to Persia to teach them a kind of drama played behind a screen (shadow show)." During the Ming Dynasty, the shadow play continued to be staged in cities and villages. It was not only a favorite of the broad people of the lower class, but also was welcomed by educated people as well. People may get a glance at its popularity at the time through a eulogistic poem written by Qu You of the Ming period. Qu was a novelist who was well known for his classical Chinese novel New Tales Under Lamplight. In the poem, we can see that historical stories remained the contents of puppet shows in the Ming period as a tradition passed down from the Song Dynasty. And the story referred to in the poem was about the war staged between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu scrambling for supreme power in the country in the third century BC -- the history of the war between the Chu and Han kingdoms. The poem reads like this: A new shadow theater was recently opened at the entertainment center in the south of the town. / The theater, through illuminating candles and lights, / Shows the rise and fall of the kingdoms past. / Though he lost in the war, retreating to a ferry / By the Wujiang River, / The Conqueror of Chu remains to be honored / As a hero even doomed to flight. During the Qing Dynasty, especially in the period between the late Qing and the early Republic of China, shadow shows prevailed across the whole country and various local styles were also established.

Chinese shadow puppetry

China Inscribed in 2011 (6.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity © 2009 China Puppet and Shadow Art Society Chinese shadow puppetry is a form of theatre acted by colourful silhouette figures made from leather or paper, accompanied by music and singing. Manipulated by puppeteers using rods, the figures create the illusion of moving images on a translucent cloth screen illuminated from behind. Many elder shadow puppetry artists can perform dozens of traditional plays, which are orally transmitted or found in written form. They master special techniques such as improvisational singing, falsetto, simultaneous manipulation of several puppets, and the ability to play various musical instruments. Many puppeteers also carve the puppets, which can have between twelve and twenty-four moveable joints. Shadow plays are performed by large troupes with seven to nine performers and smaller troupes of only two to five, primarily for entertainment or religious rituals, weddings and funerals and other special occasions. Some puppeteers are professional, while others are amateurs performing during slack farming seasons. The relevant skills are handed down in families, in troupes, and from master to pupil. Chinese shadow puppetry also passes on information such as cultural history, social beliefs, oral traditions and local customs. It spreads knowledge, promotes cultural values and entertains the community, especially the youth.

Knowledge Graph

1 Shadow plays were one of the types of puppet theater that were popular in China before the modern era.

2 The shadow play, also known as piying xi (皮影戏) in Chinese, is a combination of folk handicrafts and traditional Chinese opera

3 Shadow Play is a kind of Chinese ancient opera, which uses flat figures to create the impression of moving humans.

4 Shadow play is an old tradition and it has a long history in Southeast Asia; especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia.

5 Shadow play is popular in various cultures; currently there are more than 20 countries known to have shadow show troupes.

6 Shadow play which is also known as shadow puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment which uses flat articulated cut-out figures (shadow puppets) which are held between a source of light and a translucent screen or scrim.