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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

Shadow puppets: an ancient art that dances in the hands

By Weiwei Guan, Luyang Wang

October 16

“Making a puppet come alive is what makes a true puppeteer,” said Lu Baogang, director of the Beijing Shadow Show Troupe.

“Making a puppet come alive is what makes a true puppeteer,” said Lu Baogang, director of the Beijing Shadow Show Troupe.

Recently, a HTML5 video that combines the ancient art of shadow puppets with modern techniques has gone viral on Chinese social media. The idea behind the video was to inspire more young people to engage with the unique cultural heritage of shadow puppets.

As an ancient form of storytelling, shadow puppets have a history of 2,000 years which can be traced right back to China’s West Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-8 A.D.).

As the puppets are being manipulated behind a white screen, a recording featuring voice-acting and background music for the show is played.

Lu Baogang, director of the Beijing Shadow Show Troupe, said that movements shadow puppeteers make with the puppets need to be highly accurate. This form of entertainment requires a higher degree of precision than many other types of theatrical show. Acting techniques are needed to bring the puppets to life. Lu also holds that good background music is half the work of a good shadow puppet show.

Shadow puppet shows have gained regional features and developed a wide range of audience types during their two thousand-years of development, especially in rural China.

“We won five prizes with a play named Lady Meng Jiang in the 2005 International Puppet Play Competition. I have special memory of that play because we had blended some modern elements into it,” said Lu.

Though the shadow puppets are interesting, few young people will take it up as a profession. Indeed, the Beijing Shadow Show Troupe is badly in need some fresh blood. The ancient art will also need to be revitalized if it’s to retain popularity with today’s younger generation.

In 2008, Beijing Shadow Puppets were listed as one of China’s items of national intangible cultural heritage. In 2011, China’s Shadow Puppets were inscribed on the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

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