The Traditional Art Form of Chinese Shadow Puppetry

In the days before film and television, shadow play was the dominant means of entertaining the masses and passing on culture

Shadow puppet performance (2011) by Li TiansheWang's Shadow Museum

Shadow puppetry is an ancient Chinese art form. Its origins can be traced all the way back to the Western Han period, more than 2,000 years ago. The puppets’ shadows are cast onto a white screen, with the audience viewing the shadows from the other side of the screen.

Selection of leather (2011) by Li TiansheWang's Shadow Museum

As the two-dimensional puppets and props need to be robust, as well as transparent, they are often made of cowhide or donkey hide.

Dyeing shadow puppets (2011) by Li TiansheWang's Shadow Museum

Once carved, the puppets are painted with transparent dyes in red, yellow, blue, green, and black. These dyes make the shadows they cast on the screen look elegant and beautiful.

Shadow puppet clothing (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

The body of a shadow puppet is adorned with a variety of clothes and accessories. These are the main means of distinguishing the shadow puppet’s official status and identity.

The clothes incorporate a wide range of folk decorative elements to give the shadow puppet a rustic feel, albeit one with a clean outline.

Yang Jian (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

The makers of Northern Sichuan shadow puppets choose their colors very carefully, using saturated colors to ensure that the puppets have maximum visual impact.

Shadow puppet clothing (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

The python robe is exclusively for emperors, princes, generals, and ministers. It comes in a number of colors, namely red, yellow, green, white, and black.

Emperor (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

Python robes for male characters are often carved with dragon motifs...

Queen (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

... while those for female characters are usually carved with phoenix-and-sun or two-dragons-and-pearl designs.

Hua Wu Sheng (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

“Kaozi” is another name for body armor, and is usually worn by male or female generals.

The engraving on such armor is by way of hollow carving to make the armor look strong and robust under lighting.

Master Yu Ding (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

The decorative engravings on body armor come in a rich variety of designs. Some examples include herringbone and asterisk patterns.

Ma Chao (2010) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

Zhao Yun (2010) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

Red and blue Shan (robe) (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

The pleats on a scholar’s robe generally feature engravings of flowers and birds, such as peonies, pomegranates, chrysanthemums, begonias, magnolias, mandarin ducks, and butterflies.

Zheng Dan (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

The apparel of commoners and virtuous female characters is usually not adorned with engravings and accessories but painted in plain colors like cyan or black.

Nezha (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

Deities, Buddhas, devils, and monsters also make up a considerable part of the shadow puppet catalog.

The gamut of characters draws from the rich tapestry of Chinese history, folklore, and religion.

Guanyin (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

They include Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of Buddhism...

Leizhenzi (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

...wind, rain, thunder, and lightning gods of Taoism and even the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas.

Cow-head, horse-face spirits (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

On the other side of the spectrum are the Chinese underworld deities Ox-Head, Horse-Face, and Heibai Wuchang.

Dragon Emperor of the East Sea (2007/2009) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

The supernatural beings are often adorned in robes and have pleats. Their size is no different from that of ordinary shadow puppets. The only thing that distinguishes them from mere ‘mortals’ is the head.

When creating the heads of the spirits, the shadow puppet maker takes inspiration from the wall paintings in nearby Buddhist and Taoist temples, closely following how such spirits look to ordinary people.

Fire Mountain (2005) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

Apart from the principal characters, props are also an important part of shadow play. Their effects include decorating the environment, highlighting the characters and adding depth to the plot.

Kitten fishing (2005) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

There are two major differences between the props in shadow play and those in traditional operas or plays.

First of all, due to the limitation of the two-dimensional screen, the props in the former are two-dimensional so as to be consistent with the characters.

Dragon Palace (2005) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

Secondly, the theatrical scenery in shadow puppetry is capable of not only portraying the scenes found ordinary plays, but can also depict scenes.

Such as underwater worlds...

Twelve levels of the Underworld (2005) by Wang Biao and Wang FangWang's Shadow Museum

... and the 18 levels of Hell.

Engraving shadow puppet (2011) by Li TiansheWang's Shadow Museum

Shadow puppet makers combine their observations and understanding of life with the aesthetic preferences of their audience to create shadow puppets that are both lifelike and unique.

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