Shadow play is taken as an earliest ancestor of modern cinema; the unique artistic value makes it be reserved from the ancient time.
Performers control characters while singing the libretto to tell the story behind the screen. The character, or we can say silhouette, is made of hard paper, buffalo and donkey hide. The silhouette is projected on a white screen as the actor or actress in this play.
Many artistic factors are included in this play. Light, screen, music, singing and puppetry form this interesting art. The harmonious appliance among these factors wins people’s high praise, and gets a name as “a magic, lighting-like art”.
The origin of this play is a beautiful love story of an emperor.
In Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu lost his beloved beautiful wife and missed her seriously. He disclosed his depressed mood and showed a negative emotion to the affairs of country.
One day, a minister saw a puppet’s reflection in the water when he went on the street. And the puppet was seen to be alive when a child moved the hand. It inspired him to create a similar scene to heal the Emperor Wu’s negative mood.
The minister copied the concubine's picture onto a piece of leather and after coloring and cutting a lifelike silhouette was made. After these preparations, he invited Emperor Wu to sit far away from the screen. In this performance, Emperor Wu saw his concubine's silhouette came up slowly and gracefully, knelt down respectfully and remained there. This made Emperor Wu excited. And it was taken as the origin of shadow play.
With the pace of the times, shadow play gradually developed and became quite popular during the Song Dynasty. In Ming Dynasty, this art had become mature and formed 40 to 50 shadow show troupes in the city of Beijing alone. For its unique characters in the art field, shadow play was improved. Today, puppets made of leather and moved on sticks are used to tell dramatic versions of traditional fairy tales and myths.
The excellent skills make the puppet become fantastic and attractive. Be made of transparent leather, this lively character firstly is carved by the artist, then with bright colors, the character will show his or her charms through the lantern light. Usually, patterns used to dye the female puppet are flower, grass, cloud and phoenix. And the male puppet can use tiger, water and cloud patterns.
Besides the workmanship, the control skill and the singing art also make this play successful. Which movement should the character perform, how to make the puppet perform and how to make audiences feel the character’s emotion, all of these ask the artist to master a comprehensive ability.
Roles in Shadow Play
Roles in shadow plays are the same with the Peking opera. Sheng, Dan, Jing, Mo, Chou all can be found in shadow play. The height of the puppet ranges from 10cm to 55cm. And besides the figure puppet, things like animals, furniture and plants are also carved and projected on the screen for serving the performance.
The Situation of Shadow Play
Due to modern audio-visual media, this form of performance can not be popular as the situation two decades ago. But the unique feature and historic color in this performance make this art as a high valuable cultural heritage in Chinese art field. And China is applying to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) for a certification as an intangible cultural heritage.