Shadow Play – A Cultural Treasure of China!

Shadow play (影戏 yǐngxì), also known as shadow puppetry, is a traditional type of entertainment in China. Flat leather puppets, manipulated by sticks, are held up against a screen with a light behind them. Accompanied by music, song and dialogue, they tell a story. What are the origins of this fascinating art form? And why did it become so popular in China? 

Read on to find out!

Villagers gather to watch a performance

Although it’s possible that some form of shadow play has existed in China for  longer, since puppets are mentioned in earlier sources, the first specific mention of shadow play is not until the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). 

The tools required for a shadow play are simple: a white screen, puppets, and a light. Screens were made of mulberry paper, and some had the scenery painted on. Puppets may have been originally made of paper too, but no doubt leather quickly became more popular because of its durability.  Hence in modern Chinese the art form is called 皮影戏 Píyǐngxì, 皮 pí meaning leather.

Shadow play scenery can be extremely ornate

Puppets did not only represent people; scenery, furniture, transportation such as boats, horses and carriages were also carved and painted. The colours were extremely vivid in order to show through the screen. 

Carving and painting the puppets is detailed work

A typical performing troupe was made up of around five people. One operated the puppets, three played instruments and one sang all the parts. 

A modern performance with Halloween touches

The evening performances and portability of the props made shadow play an ideal art form for the working class. Skills were passed down through families, in troupes, and from master to pupil. The art form enabled crucial  transmission of cultural history, social beliefs, oral traditions and local customs even among the illiterate. 

Zhong Zhiyuan performing at home during the pandemic

Since the Cultural Revolution shadow play has suffered a fast decline, exacerbated by modern forms of entertainment. The Chinese government is promoting this ancient and important art form, but perhaps the best promoters are the practitioners themselves, who are

finding new ways to bring the art form to young people. In February, shadow puppeteer Zhong Zhiyuan, from Pingjiang in Hunan, went viral on social media as he performed shadow plays with public health messages to help people during the pandemic.

Want to learn more about shadow play? Join us via Zoom on November 12th for an online presentation about this captivating folk art. We’ll talk more about the history of the art form and the techniques involved!

Have you seen a Shadow Play performance? Where? What did you think of it? Is it something you might like to try for yourself? Let us know in the comments below. We always love to hear your insights and feedback!

Photo Credits, Cultural Keys,,,,,

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