Judging by Appearances

Do you know how to identify a character’s role through its headgear in shadow plays?

By Wang's Shadow Museum

Emperor (1970s) by Wang WenkunWang's Shadow Museum

Apparel and accessories are important components of shadow plays. Besides providing a splash of color, a character's apparel and accessories help the audience to understand their demeanor and social status.

Wang School of Shadow Puppets (1970s) by Wang WenkunWang's Shadow Museum

The technique of separating the head from its headgear is an important feature in northern Sichuan shadow puppetry, and headgear makes up a large proportion of the elements used to perform it.The same face can instantly take on a different role when matched with new headgear.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

The headgear can be a crown, hat, helmet, or bandanna, and it is one of the most important ways of distinguishing the character's official status and identity.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum


The headgear of deities is often engraved with patterns featuring lotus flowers and mythical creatures. The color yellow and the fluffy ball on the cap also symbolize the deities’ exalted status.

A deity’s rank is usually distinguished by the color of their hair. White hair often means the deity enjoys high status, such as Yuding Zhenren, Taibai Jinxing, and Jiang Ziya in "Investiture of the Gods."

Black hair is reserved for junior deities and, more often than not, is worn by "fairy children" in these plays.

Imperial headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum


There are two types of emperor’s cap: hard and soft.

The hard cap is normally used in formal situations, such as assemblies of the imperial court, official visits, and when receiving emissaries from other countries. The tassels on the cap represent the emperor’s status.

An emperor wears a soft cap with casual clothes in the palace, after the morning court assembly has taken place.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Crown Prince

The cap of a crown prince is similar to that of an emperor and features a string of tassels, symbolizing the crown prince's status as next in line to the throne.


There is a wide variety of princes’ caps.

If a prince’s headgear is adorned with a dragon, it means he is a warrior and capable of going to battle with troops.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Queen Mother

In ancient China, dragons and phoenixes were the status symbols of the imperial family and ordinary people could not use them. The phoenix engraving on the queen mother’s headgear means that she is the highest-ranking female member of the ruling family.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum


“Fan” was the name given to foreigners. Since the Han period, foreign soldiers had always been depicted in stone carvings with a high nose bridge, deep-set eyes, and wearing pointed caps.

The foxtail hair on the caps represents ethnic minorities in northern China.

In ancient times, it was often impossible for the emperor to truly rule over vast stretches of land. The headgear of a foreigner puppet can therefore be engraved with dragon patterns, indicating their high social status and power.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Profligate Youngster

Profligate youngsters are the children of influential officials and rich landowners. They often spend their days eating and drinking, playing, and having fun. Their headgear is often painted in lavish colors and adorned with ribbons.

Shadow-puppet head design (male) (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

A youngster with flat eyebrows is a frail scholar, while one with raised eyebrows is profligate youngster with martial arts skills.

If a youngster’s headgear has two small peaches, it means that he is always chasing after women, and incapable of following rules.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Rich Youngster

Characters who wear this type of headgear are usually descendants of officials. They study diligently and are devoted to pursuing a career in the imperial court. If a rich youngster has a hair bun, it indicates that they are from a military family.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum


In ancient China, squires were wealthy merchants or landowners. In shadow plays, squires wearing caps with lighter colors are relatively less well off, while those wearing caps with deeper, richer engravings and adornments are wealthier.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Miscellaneous Headgear

Miscellaneous headgear is the most common form of headgear in shadow puppet plays, covering every conceivable job in normal social life.

This cap would be worn by an average person.

Their economic standing is depicted by the complexity of engravings and adornments.

This diagram is a variation of the Tai Chi diagram, and can only be found on the headgear of a Taoist priest.

A boatman may wear a straw hat.

This is the cap of a Buddhist monk.

This is an all-purpose cap and can be worn by different characters, depending on the plot line.

Shadow-puppet headgear (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Special Roles

Some headgear can only be worn on certain special occasions or by specific characters in the play.

This is a cap used exclusively by Tang Sanzang in “Journey to the West.”

Character wearing mourning cap (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

A white mourning cap is worn by a character whose relative has just passed away.

Lion helmet (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Lion helmet: This helmet features a lion, and has a fluffy ball hanging from the front, and a bell at the back. It is also engraved with a flower motif.This helmet would be worn by military officers such as Mu Gua in “Muke Fortress.”

Changing-face head design (2007/2009) by Wang BiaoWang's Shadow Museum

Mask Helmet

Sichuan Opera is world-renowned for changing the face of a character using masks, and face masks are also used in northern Sichuan shadow puppetry. They are usually reserved for demons and deities, to represent changes in a character's personality.During a performance, the shadow play artist simply needs to pull a linen string on the mask to instantly transform an individual into a spirit, or a pretty girl into a raging demon.

Qing Period shadow puppet head design (1666) by Wang ShichengWang's Shadow Museum

The character’s face and headgear are not always carved in one piece. They are sometimes carved separately so they can be used interchangeably, depending on the script. This reduces the number of items needed, while enriching the play by making it more diverse and expressive.The sharp profiles, unmistakable lines, and diversity of colors in the headgear used in shadow puppetry bring the characters to life, allowing their experiences to resonate with the audience, as if they were made of flesh and blood.

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