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Shadow Show

An Introduction to Shadow Show

The shadow show or leather silhouette play is a type of drama which has its roots in China. It can be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty (206BC - 25 AD) has a history of more than 2,000 years.

There are some different theories about the origin of the Chinese shadow-play. Legend has it that Emperor Wudi (156-87 B.C.) of the Western Han was depressed with the death of his favorite concubine Lady Li. To help him get over the sadness, an occultist sculptured a wooden figure in the likeness of the lady and projected its shadow on a curtain for the emperor to see, bringing him consolation with the belief that the shadow was her spirit. This has been thought to be the beginning of the shadow show. Yet there are some people think the first shadow-play figures were invented to illustrate Buddhist sermons, first made of paper, then later of leather. 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.

The oldest figures were made of paper. Later, leather was the widely used material. Shadow puppets are made of leather for the simple reason that leather is much lighter, easier to manipulate and carry round. The process for making the puppets is as follows: Sheep or donkey skin with hair removed is cleaned and treated chemically to become thin enough to be translucent. Coated with tung oil and dried, it is carved into various parts of dramatic figures. The trunk, head and limbs of a puppet are separately carved but joined together by thread so that each part may. Be manipulated by the operator to simulate human movements. The leather puppets are painted with various colors to show their different qualities-- kind or wicked, beautiful or ugly. During the performance, the "actors" are held close to a white curtain with their colored shadows cast on it by a strong light from behind. Moved by guiding sticks, they play the roles, accompanied by music, with their parts or singing done by the operators. The plays can be quite dramatic when it comes to fairy tales or kungfu stories, the "actors" may be made to ride on clouds or perform unusual feats to give the great enjoyment to the audience especially children.

The shadow show became quite popular in the early Song Dynasty (960-1279) when holidays were marked by the presentation of many shadow plays. During the Ming (1368-1644), there were 40 to 50 shadow show troupes in the city of Beijing alone. In the 13th century the shadow show became a regular recreation in the barracks of the Mongolian troops. It was spread by the conquering Mongols to distant countries like Persia, Arabia and Turkey. Later, it was introduced to Southeastern Asian countries.

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.

Recent years, in many areas, certain types of plays and the art of performance are actually nearing fading away. Fortunately, shadow play is alive and well-preserved in Huanxian County in northwest Gansu Province, where has more than 90 shadow play groups, all of which are made up of the local farmers.

As present, more than 20 countries are known to have shadow show troupes. Now, when the motion picture and television have become wide spread throughout the world, foreign tourists in China are still keen to see a performance of this ancient dramatic art. 

Shadow play figures are very popular with collectors and as home decorations. And most tourists who visit Xian, Shaanxi are always willing to buy them as souvenir.

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