Shadow play
www.chinaview.cn 2009-05-04 08:33:04   Print

Shadow puppetry. Traditional Chinese shadow puppetry took center stage during last years Olympic Games, lead by acclaimed director Zhang Yimous use of the puppetry in his memorable opening ceremony festivities. (Photo source: Globaltimes.cn)
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    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 festivities.

    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 Chinas historic folk arts.(Photo source: Globaltimes.cn)
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    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 Chinas 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.

    (Source: Globaltimes.cn)

Editor: Wang Hongjiang
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