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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

Eastern magic: traditional Chinese shadow play

By Minjun Xu

September 6

Considered the precursor of Chinese cinema, the traditional Chinese shadow play is a historic folk art that reveals the fanciful magic of light and shadow.

Considered the precursor of Chinese cinema, the traditional Chinese shadow play is a historic folk art that reveals the fanciful magic of light and shadow.

The shadow play, also known as piying xi (皮影戏) in Chinese, is a combination of folk handicrafts and traditional Chinese opera. This “Magic of the East” — a legacy of the Han culture — has evolved into various types across China.

Similar to puppet shows, traditional Chinese shadow play is an old form of storytelling and entertainment. The puppets employed in a shadow play are flat, intricate figures usually made from hard paper and leather. The Chinese name for it, piying, means “shadows of hides.”

A man shows his shadow puppets [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wang Haibin]
A man shows his shadow puppets [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wang Haibin]
When performing a shadow play, puppeteers hold sticks and strings to control the movement of the characters, or more precisely their silhouettes, which are projected onto a translucent screen. Background music is played using a variety of instruments, including drums and horns, while performers sing and chant.

An artisan performs the shadow play [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Fan Genlin]
An artisan performs the shadow play [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Fan Genlin]
Legend says shadow plays originated during the West Han Dynasty, when Emperor Wu (汉武帝), mourning the death of a favorite concubine, ordered his officers to bring his beloved back to life. The officers used donkey leather to make a cut-out of the concubine, which seemed to come to life under the light of an oil lamp because of its movable limbs and vivid colors.

A shadow play is performed [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Li Shiju]
A shadow play is performed [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Li Shiju]
The Song Dynasty witnessed the flourishing of shadow plays, which became a common street-side entertainment. During the Yuan Dynasty, the art entered its heyday and spread to distant lands like Persia, Arabia, and Turkey. In 1774, this “magic of the East” was introduced to Europe by Johann Goethe.

Vivid shadow puppetry [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Zhang Guorong]
Vivid shadow puppetry [Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Zhang Guorong]
In 2011, shadow play was listed as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Though modern media and entertainment have shrunk the popularity of shadow play somewhat, it is still enjoyed by many people in rural China. In Hunan, Hebei, Gansu, and Shaanxi, where the traditional Chinese shadow plays are best preserved, it’s not difficult to find people who perform this folk art.

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