Hua County Shadow Puppets

China Intangible Heritage Industry Alliance

Hua County Shadow Puppets
Falling into the Eastern School of Shaanxi shadow puppetry, Hua County Shadow Puppet Play is a time-honored folk art also called “Wanwan Qiang”, meaning “bowl melody” literally. According to Chronicles of Hua County, there were 20 to 30 shadow play troupes in the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 AD) and shadow puppet shows still enjoyed high popularity in the Republic of China era (1912-1949 AD) with the number of troupes increased to 48 in its heyday. The popularity of shadow puppet plays would not have been achieved without the efforts of puppet crafters. Shadow-puppet-making has evolved into an independent folk profession that attracts attention and support with the renewed development of this art form. The shadow puppets have established distinctive artistic features winning nation-wide recognition as a representative category of the Eastern School of Shaanxi shadow puppets.

The making of shadow puppets involves eight procedures traditionally, namely, selecting ox skin, preparing skin, drawing on skin, reviewing the drawing, openwork carving, coloring, ironing and piecing together.

This picture shows the coloring procedure.

Carving shadow puppets.

All the tools needed for carving shadow puppets.

Classic Shadow Puppets Made by Wang Tianxi
Born in 1959 in Hua county, the cradle of shadow puppets, Wang Tianxi started to learn carving shadow puppets from his brother since he was a little boy and later engaged in the exploration of this art form following the puppet-making master Mr. Li Zhanwen. Thanks to his dedication to shadow puppets in the past three decades, Wang has not only mastered the whole set of carving techniques for making Hua County Shadow Puppets based on his inheritance, development and innovation of traditional skills, but also integrated with modern techniques, leading to many new patterns and designs. His puppet artworks are always amazingly fabulous thanks to the artist’s skillful, meticulous and ingenious cutting skills.

Wang Tianxi is dyeing a shadow puppet.

Snake Rack. Flanked by a rock hill on one side and thriving trees on the other, the snake rack is covered with curly snakes and dragons, with even the stone table and stools underneath surrounded by snakes and frogs, creating a mysterious, eccentric and appalling scene.

Garden. This large-size piece, composed of a gate, a corridor and a pavilion from left to right, was designed as a stage setting. Compared with the two-dimensional gate and pavilion, the corridor, carved with exquisite patterns of stone tables, stools and flowers, looks more life-like thanks to the three-dimensional illustration.

General’s Tent. Carved out of a large-size piece of ox skin, this artwork, with red as the main color and yellow as well as green as subordinate ones, applied a great number of auspicious motifs such as dragons, bats, peony blossoms, peaches, etc., composed of both thick and thin blade work, creating a sense of magnificence.

Lingxiao Hall. This piece illustrating the Lingxiao Hall, or the Numinous Sky Hall, believed to be the residence of the Jade Emperor in Chinese mythology, looks extremely sumptuous and fabulous.

Mural of Polo-playing. This piece was made based on the Mural of Polo-playing unearthed in 1971 in the Tomb of Li Xian, or Crown Zhanghuai of the Tang dynasty, in Qian county of Shaanxi province. It illustrates a polo-playing scene of five players on horseback with consistent carved lines as well as delicate, exquisite motifs.

Mural of Cuju-playing. Cuju was an ancient Chinese sport of kicking a ball, seen as the earliest form of football. Historical recordings indicate that cuju was a popular folk game as early as the Warring States period (453 or 403 -221 BC) of China.

This piece presents a joyful cuju-playing scene of five players in various postures, with two standing maids, one on each side, and a screen wall decorated with patterns of waves and curly dragons in the background. Featuring a composition filled with elements in a nicely-crowded way, this piece of artwork is a testimony to the artisan’s ingenious carving techniques.

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (partial). Adopting a theme of ancient Chinese literary dignitaries, this piece depicts a daily life scene of the renowned Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, with this section showing Wang Rong and Xiangxiu appreciating a painting under a tree.

A Well-assorted Couple (openwork carving). The making of shadow puppets is composed of eight procedures traditionally, namely, selecting ox skin, preparing skin, drawing on skin, reviewing the drawing, openwork carving, coloring, ironing and piecing together.

The gentleman on the left of the couple, with straight eyebrows and slender eyes, exudes composure and elegance, while the lady on the right, with crescent eyebrows and slim eyes, looks pretty and graceful. Both their garments are embellished with snowflake motifs, showing the artisan’s preference of classic and ancient beauty.

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. The shaping of figures in the Shadow Puppets of Hua County, Shaanxi province abides by the principle literally meaning “50% on head, 70% on body”, attaching importance to the combination of the head, either in face or in profile, with the body in profile, revealing the conception of completeness held by the folk of China. This piece shows the image of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).

Jia Baoyu. This is a shadow puppet of Jia Baoyu, the protagonist in the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber. According to the book, Jia Baoyu was the incarnation of both a piece of rock left beside the Qinggeng Mountain by Goddess Nvwa after repairing the sky, and the fairy servant named Shenying once living in the Hall of Red Clouds in the Heaven.

Guard of Honor. Character design for this group of shadow puppets is fixed. The two female members of the guard of honor, with head wrapped in a square scarf and temples adorned with flowers, are holding a banner inscribed “favorable weather for crops, peace and prosperity for the country and people”. Nothing but the feet on the two characters can move.

Kneeling Soldier. This shadow puppet of a kneeling solder was designed based on the kneeling and shooting terracotta soldiers unearthed in Shaanxi province. With his face covered with painted make-up, this armor-clad soldier has a titled chignon, a left arm that moves freely and a right arm hidden behind a bronze shield decorated with taotie patterns.

General Frog. Apart from the categories of Sheng (male characters), Dan (female characters), Jing (painted-face characters), Mo (usually elderly males) and Chou (comic characters), as in the Peking Opera, the Shadow Play of Shaanxi also has mythological and monstrous characters such as this meticulously-carved and brightly-hued piece of a carp-riding frog general with an official hat and a back flag.

Tai Sui. Originated in the worship of stars by ancient Chinese people, Tai Sui, also known as the Grand Commander of the Years, is believed by Taoists to be the deity in charge of misfortunes. Legend has it that by conducting prayer sessions to ask Tai Sui for blessings one can obtain peace and good fortune throughout the year.

Antique & Curio Shelf. Such a multi-story wood shelf was a necessity for ancient Chinese literati to display antiques and curios. There are many flowers in pots and bonsais sitting on the shelf in this piece, while on the table in the middle of the image there is a jade vase accommodating three halberds, making a pun of “three levels of promotion” based on the homonym of “halberd” and “level” in Chinese, conveying the wishes for a successful official career.

China Intangible Heritage Industry Alliance
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