The History of Chinese Shadow Art

A retrospective of the appearance and development of Shadow Art in Chinese historical records

By Google Arts & Culture

Shadow puppetry is a form of theatrical performance that uses the shadow of puppets cast onto a screen. The shadow puppets used in China are typically semi-transparent leather plates to which semi-transparent dyes are applied. As a result, the shadows cast onto the screen tend to be colorful during the performance.

Shadow puppet performance photo, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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The props used in Chinese shadow puppetry are mainly made from animal skins, cow, donkey, goat, horse, mule, etc.

Fine hair on the cowhide, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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The animal skins are pressed, engraved, and dyed to form the shape of human characters, birds and beasts, and background objects.

Drying the cowhide, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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The shadows on the screen are then produced by lights placed behind the puppets that perform in place of real people.


Shadow puppetry is considered a type of puppetry because shadows are used in place of actual individuals. Puppetry is also known as a palace performance. It uses the puppets to imitate real-life characters in the performance. Classical puppetry that uses wooden puppets is closely related to shadow puppetry.

Tools for carving shadow puppets, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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Reviewing the drawings, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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In the Miscellaneous Records on Ministry of Music, written by Duan An’jie during the Tang dynasty, it describes how Liu Bang, the founder of Han dynasty, was besieged by Mao Dun in a city called Pingcheng. Liu’s advisor, Chen Ping, was told that Mao Dun’s wife, Mrs. Yu, was very insecure about her marriage, and therefore ordered that puppets should be made to resemble prostitutes and to dance on the city’s parapet. When Mao Dun's wife saw the puppets, she thought they were real people and forced Mao Dun to withdraw his army out of fear that he would take the prostitutes as his concubines. This suggests that by the Han Period, puppet production and its use were already quite sophisticated, otherwise Mao Dun’s wife would not have been fooled if the puppets were not convincing in appearance.

This piece of historical record not only portrays the expert use of puppets by people in ancient times, but it also shows how a puppet can always be used as a substitute for a real person in order to complete a task that may be dangerous or impossible.

Carving the shadow puppets (in details), From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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There have been countless claims as to the origin of shadow puppetry. According to Book of Han: the Empresses and Imperial Affines, Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty never forgot his wife Li who died at a young age. An alchemist Shao Weng claimed that he could summon her spirit. He lit candles, set up a tent, and laid a table of fine wine and food at night. Emperor Wu was requested to sit inside another tent, where he saw what appeared to be the figure of Li. Apparently, Li came and sat in the tent before slowly departing. Emperor Wu was not allowed to approach the figure. In his sorrow, he wrote a poem: “Was that you? I stood up to look at you. Yet you never came.”

Gao Cheng of the Song Period thought this was the beginning of shadow puppetry. “Since one could not see at close distance, it must have been shadow puppetry.” The action of the "alchemist" in historical records was unclear. It merely added a sense of mystery. It is plausible that his actions laid the foundation for the emergence of shadow puppetry. However, its significance should not be overstated.

Dyeing shadow puppet, Photographer: Liu Xiaoyang, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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According to Mr. Qi Rushan, shadow puppetry as a form of entertainment first began during the Tang dynasty. In his Illustrated Catalog of Performances in Ancient Capitals, he said, with reference to the origin of shadow puppetry: “It must begin in Shaanxi Province, as Xi’an was a capital city for hundreds of years and Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty was enthusiastic about promoting arts. As a result, all types of art form emerged from the province, among which was shadow play.

Presently, shadow play is still very popular in Xi’an, particularly in Hanzhong City. The shadow puppets used are more than three inches longer than those used in Beijing. The dyeing and engraving of shadow puppets from Hanzhong are more exquisite than those from Beijing, and the puppetry techniques are also more nimble and adroit. The shadow plays being passed down from previous generations are also more elegant in substance and style... This proves that Shaanxi is the origin of shadow puppetry.”

Shadow puppet performance, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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In addition, it is recorded in Volume 146 Palace Plays in Comprehensive Statutes, compiled by Du You that: “During the second year of Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty, a Turkic envoy Ran Gan arrived to pay homage to the emperor. The emperor was determined to showcase his dynasty’s power and ordered that palace plays from all over the country be assembled at Luoyang, the capital... In the sixth year of his reign, exotic items were presented by foreigners... eventually hundreds of shows were presented in the Tianjin street, attracting those with such skills from all over the country to converge here...”

Legend of the White Snake shadow puppets, Photographer: Liu Xiaoyang, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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Another pertinent fact was the prevalence of "lantern shadow" during the Tang period. It is said that at that time, monks used the shadows of puppets to symbolize the soul of the deceased during the intercession. This was the so-called “lantern shadow”. Gu Jiegang mentioned in his Overview of the History of China’s Shadow Play and Current Status that Buddhism was widely accepted during the Tang dynasty and influenced the daily habits of the general public. However, Buddhist teachings were extremely hard for most people to decipher, except for the highly enlightened part of society.

Thus, the general public took to some of the more dramatic portions of Buddhist teachings and popularized them in the form of "modified text". The modified text evolved to become "precious volumes". They were mainly the scripts for shadow performance used to propagate Buddhist teachings. Even today, shadow puppeteers still call the performance scripts “shadow play volume” or “declaration volume”. Buddhist teachings have had a direct influence over this traditional folk art.

Yin Jiao, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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This in no doubt strengthened the argument that shadow puppetry was already presented as a play during the Tang dynasty. Historian Gu Jiegang thought that “those with such skills from all over the country” must have included shadow puppetry, “as the time between the Han and Sui dynasties was a long one... and although it was recorded in the Comprehensive Statutes that the palace plays ordered by Emperor Xuanzong included only: masquerade dance, mourning dance, grieving wife and puppetry". While there was with no mention of shadow puppetry, the latter was closely related to shadow puppetry. Many people are unable to distinguish between puppetry and shadow puppetry, and therefore tended to refer to it inter-changeably.

To put it another way, shadow puppetry had already been in existence and was included by the Tang emperor in his search as the palace play. Shadow puppetry at that time was rather different from the "trickery" played by the alchemist during the Han dynasty.

Fish transforming into a dragon, Original Source: Chengdu Museum
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Indeed, we can make the following conclusions about shadow puppetry during the Tang period: As a type of performance, shadow puppetry has existed since the Tang dynasty, and the use of puppets was most likely closely related to the propagation of Buddhism.

There are numerous reports during the Song dynasty on shadow puppetry. It shows that in the Southern Song and Northern Song dynasties, shadow puppetry was as popular then as it is today.

Centipede monster, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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For example, Nai Deweng described in his “Compendium on Southern Song Capital: Music and Plays” as follows: “Shadow puppetry... used engraved plain paper before eventually using dyed leather. The script for shadow plays was remarkably similar to historical records. They were most likely a mixture of truths and falsehood. The characters that were deemed upstanding often possessed good looks, while those deemed unsavory were repulsive in appearance. This was in keeping with the popular perception of good and bad.”

Lady White Snake in the snake cave, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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It was recorded in the Compendium on the Northern Treaties at Three Courts written by Xu Mengshen that: After the city of Kaifeng was overrun by northern Jin in 1127, the conquering forces took with them shadow puppeteers, as war trophies. With the Southern Song rulers moving the capital to Hangzhou, the center of activity for shadow puppets also moved to the southern city. Shadow play performances during the Northern Song period were made in Wasi, the entertainment center, and by the Southern Song period the art form was elevated to palace art.

Stills of “Warrior on a Thousand-Mile Journey”, Wang Wenkun, 1985/1988, From the collection of: Wang's Shadow Museum
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Shadow plays were not only popular in the cities, but also in rural villages. It was said that “rural performers traveled with their families and gave performances in the streets, bridges, and alleys in exchange for board and lodging or donations.”

By now, we are in no doubt as to the importance of shadow puppetry as a form of theatrical plays in our social and cultural lives. Shadow puppetry has secured its place as a form of entertainment in the lives of both ordinary folk and imperial palaces. It is said among puppeteers that “shadow puppetry began during the Han period, became popular during the Tang period and reached its zenith during the Song period.” Judging by the literature from the Song Dynasty, it is not far-fetched to say that shadow puppetry “reached its zenith” during that period.

Field Marshal, Wang Shicheng, 1666, From the collection of: Wang's Shadow Museum
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During the Yuan dynasty, the ruling government restricted folk shadow plays because of security concerns. During that time, it was mainly used to serve the armed forces and to disseminate stories about China to foreigners.

By the Qing dynasty, shadow puppetry can be found throughout China, known in various provinces by different names. Some of the more memorable and fascinating names are “storytelling behind the paper partition”, “shadow playing”, “shadow play” in Shaanxi, “donkey shadow puppet” in Henan, “Luanzhou shadow” in Hebei, “leather kids” in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, “paper shadow” in Guangdong, “Shan lamp shadow”, “Northern Sichuan Weinan shadow”, and “lantern shadow play” in Sichuan, “whipping monkey” in Fujian, and “leather doll” in Gansu. Luanzhou shadow, in particular, was extremely popular during the Qing period and was performed by the Dongcheng School in Beijing, and became so popular that “all local shadow plays were overshadowed by it.”

Emperor, Wang Wenkun, 1970s, From the collection of: Wang's Shadow Museum
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Shadow puppets saw widespread dissemination overseas during the Ming and Qing dynasties. During the 15th Century (1465-1587), it was brought into Egypt. During the 17th Century (1572-1620), it was introduced into Turkey. During the 18th Century, it was introduced into France, before being brought into Great Britain and Germany.

Ancient version of the Legend of the White Snake, Photographer: Liu Xiaoyang, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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Based on historical information we have collected to date, it can be said that shadow puppetry has a history of over a thousand years. Like the dynasties that have come and gone throughout history, shadow puppetry is constantly evolving. As a form of theatrical performance, it had to adapt to the needs of the day. From the imperial palaces and temples during the Tang dynasty to the commercial towns during the Northern Song period, from the palaces during the Southern Song period to the armies during the Yuan Dynasty period, and from high officials’ residence and palace to the teahouses and theatres during the Ming and Qing dynasties, shadow puppetry has had to constantly re-invent itself in order to survive.

Legend of the White Snake shadow puppet treasures from Shaanxi, From the collection of: CAFA Art Museum
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It goes without saying that historical records of shadow puppetry are by no means complete. The lack of verifiable records has meant that its presence in the ordinary lives of people, as vibrant as it was, will remain lost forever. The historical materials available only present a rough sketch of its development, and that is all we can do now.

Credits: Story

Story written by WU Jian'an, contemporary Chinese artist, professor at Central Academy of Fine Arts, China.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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