Shadow puppetry. Traditional Chinese
shadow puppetry took center stage during last year¡¯s Olympic Games, lead
by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou¡¯s use of the puppetry in his memorable
opening ceremony festivities. (Photo source: Globaltimes.cn)
By Sun Yiran
BEIJING, May 4 -- Traditional Chinese shadow
puppetry took center stage during last year's Olympic Games, lead by acclaimed
director Zhang Yimou's use of the puppetry in his memorable opening ceremony
Tasked with directing the opening ceremony of the
Beijing Olympic Games, Zhang adopted shadow puppetry as part of his goal to use
the opening ceremony to share traditional Chinese culture with the world.
Shadow puppetry, also known as shadow
play, is one of China¡¯s historic folk arts.(Photo source:
Zhang's first featured shadow puppetry in his 1994
film To Live, in which the film's protagonist Fu Gui (play by Ge You), was a
skilled shadow puppeteer and which helped to reintroduce the art of shadow
puppetry to audiences.
The ancient art form was also visible at the Chinese
Traditional Arts and Crafts Show held during last summer's Olympic Games.Among
the 27 Chinese folk artists invited to perform, shadow puppeteers from Beijing
and Shaanxi were a particular hit with both athletes and visitors.
Shadow puppetry, also known as shadow play, is one of
China¡¯s historic folk arts.
Performed by three to five puppeteers, shadow
puppetry is a form of storytelling that uses puppets against an illuminated
backdrop to create the illusion of movement.
During a shadow play, puppeteers hide themselves
behind a white curtain and move stick-mounted puppets, while also narrating the
story through folk song. Performances are generally accompanied by musicians
playing drums and stringed instruments.Similar to Peking Opera, characters are
clearly defined, with set roles for sheng (male), dan (female), jing (painted
face) and chou (clown).
Mixing opera, music, fine art and craftsmanship,
shadow puppetry is often considered a predecessor of the movie and has thrived
in China for centuries.
Shadow puppetry originated during the Han Dynasty
approximately 2,000 years ago. According to The History of the Han Dynasty,
Emperor Wudi (156- 87BC) of the Western Han Dynasty was so devastated by the
death of his favorite concubine Madame Li that he began to ignore all court
administration and government matters.
One day, the Emperor's minister, Li Shaoweng, met a
child on the road who was swinging a puppet in his hands. As the shadow of the
puppet bounced on the ground with extreme lifelikeness, Li had a sudden burst of
inspiration. After returning to the palace, the minister asked his servants to
fashion several pieces of colored silk into the image of Madame Li and then to
fix them to wooden sticks for support.
That evening, the Emperor was invited to watch, as
the servants brought concubine Li back to life through silk puppets and oil
lamps. The emperor thoroughly enjoyed the performance, after which shadow
puppetry became a main feature of the royal court and imperial China.
The process of making the specialized puppets for
shadow puppetry is quite complex. Dried and cleaned sheep, donkey or other skin
is treated with a chemical process until it becomes thin enough to be
translucent. The skin is then coated with oil and cut into the necessary
patterns. The head, limbs, and trunk of the puppets are often carved separately
and then stitched together so that each part can be moved independently.
The leather puppets are then finally painted to
define their features and help give them a personality. Many times, decorative
patterns such as flowers or clouds are used to denote female puppets, while
dragons and tigers are more common on male characters.
Emblematic of the resurgence of interest in Chinese
shadow puppetry is the growing interest in shadow puppets by collectors
worldwide. According to the chief of the Xi'an Shadow Play Museum Jiang Gouging,
the market for Chinese shadow puppets is booming, with the price rising
noticeably every year. It is not uncommon for puppets to be sold for upwards of
100,000RMB at auction.
The Chinese Ministry of Culture has applied to UNESCO
for shadow puppetry to be recognized as an intangible part of world cultural
heritage, following UNESCO's decision to remove the limit on the number of
applications for cultural heritage protection.