shadow puppet theatre

The most enduring myth concerning the origin of the Chinese shadow theatre was first suggested by a Song dynasty scholar. Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty was so distraught after the death of a favourite consort, Lady Li, that he hired a Daoist adept to conjure up her spirit. Whereupon the Daoist lit candles, made offerings and produced the likeness of the consort behind a gauze curtain. Besides Gao’s attribution, however, there is no evidence that the séance had anything directly to do with the origins of any continuous tradition of the shadow theatre.
The origin of the shadow theatre may have been influenced by the use of paintings to tell bianwen (transformation) stories, and the light displays of the Tang dynasty. It was not until the Song dynasty that the shadow theatre not only existed for certain, but was also highly developed. Sources on the shadow theatre during the Yuan and Ming dynasties are scarce. By the Qing, however, this particular form of theatre had developed to a height of sophistication the world had never seen. The shadow theatre suffered a decline during the first part of the twentieth century. But like many other cultural activities, it enjoyed a revival during the 1950s and early 1960s, mainly under government auspices, but was then banned during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Government-sponsored troupes created during the 1950s performed animal fable stories with cartoon-like characters aimed at entertaining while inculcating young audiences. Traditional shadow theatre made a comeback during the 1980s, but an estimated 85 per cent of the revived troupes were no longer in existence by the end of the 1990s.
The more prevalent traditional style Chinese shadow theatre is basically a type of Xiqu (sungdrama/opera), very similar to the genre with human actors. Many of the role types, music and musical instruments used demonstrate a mutual influence. Considerably cheaper to hire than human actor troupes, the shadow theatre gained immense popularity for public liturgical festivities (birthdays of deities, local and national festivals) in poorer rural areas, as well as for celebrations within private homes (birthdays, funerals, weddings, the building of new houses and establishment of new businesses). Although the shadow theatre served mostly secular purposes when it originated in the entertainment quarters of the Song capitals, it came to be performed mainly for the gods during festive celebrations by the Yuan dynasty. The same traditional-style shadow opera troupes are still being hired to serve mainly liturgical purposes in rural villages. Its rapid decline in popularity can be attributed as much to the incursion of television and other modern entertainments as it is to attrition in the desire to please the deities during special occasions.
Shadow figures of almost all Chinese shadow traditions use coloured translucent parchment. Aside from some large composite figures of deities, all the figures have detachable heads. Before performance, the heads to be used for the play are attached to appropriate bodies and hung on two lines perpendicular to the sides of the screen backstage. All the limbs and body of the individual figures are articulated. A flexible central rod is attached to the collar of the shadow figure, and two others to each of the hands. The shadow master manipulates the parchment figures behind a paper or cloth screen, which is illuminated by dint of an oil lamp/lamps or electrical light/s, accompanied invariably by an orchestra. In some shadow theatre traditions, the shadow master does all the manipulation, singing and dialogues in solo, while in others one person will be in charge of manipulation, with the possible aid of an assistant, with another or others performing the vocal parts. Also, depending on the degree of sophistication, handcopied scripts are used in some traditions while others rely solely on memory.
A troupe usually consists of four to nine performers, and has one or two trunks of shadow figures. The trunk usually belongs to the shadow master of the troupe. A trunk typically contains numerous labelled folders of shadow figures of humans, supernatural beings, animals and scenery. The size of the figures in different traditions may range from over a metre to barely 30 cm high. Unlike operas with human actors, the shadow theatre ‘stage’ is frequently ornately decorated with scenic pieces of palaces, inner gardens, tables, chairs and so forth. Gelestials ride on clouds, and fantastic beasts and supernatural weapons really perform magical feats. Some figures have a movable piece on the face so that it can be flipped and change into a demon or into a face with blood streaming down. Traditional-style troupes are by far more popular and they tend to thrive in remote villages.
The government-sponsored modern-style troupes located in some cities use considerably larger screens and figures. The figures are often made with celluloid rather than parchment, with more pieces per figure. These troupes also use boxes of fluorescent lights to create brighter and more even lighting, and often add innovative special effects. When performing modern animal fables, they use pre-recorded music with narrations and dialogues in Mandarin. Several manipulators usually perform at the same time creating more intricate articulation of the figures. Modern-style troupes had their heyday during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Three regional museums are dedicated to the preservation of this art form: the Puppet and Shadow Theatre Museum (Mu’ou piyingxi bowuguan) in Xiaoyi, Shanxi; the Puppet Museum in Taipei; and the Shadow Figure Museum in Gaoxiong, Taiwan.
Chin, Chen-an (1993). ‘The Arts of the Lanchou Shadow Show’. In idem, The Mainstay of the Chinese Shadow Show—The Lanchou Shadow Show. Taipei: The Student Book Co., 75–166.
Fan, Pen Chen (2004). Visions of the Masses: Chinese Shadow Plays. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. [Videotape of a traditional shadow play, The Temple of Guanyin, with English and Chinese subtitles can be obtained at a nominal charge from fanpenchen\@hotmail.com]
(forthcoming). The Chinese Shadow Theatre and Popular Religion and Women Warriors. Honolulu: McGill and Queens Universities Press and the University of Hawaii Press.
Jiang, Yuxiang, Zhongguo yingxi yü minsu [The Chinese Shadow Theatre and Local Customs]. Taipei: Suxiang chubanshe, 1999.
Ruizendaal, Robin (1995). The Quanzhou Marionette Theatre: A Fieldwork Report (1986–1995)’. China Information 10.1:1–18.
——(2000). ‘Ritual Text and Performance in the Marionette Theater of Southern Fujian and Taiwan’. In Jan A.M.Meyer and Peter M. Engelfriet (eds), Linked Faiths: Essays on Chinese Religion and Traditional Culture in Honor of Kristofer Schipper. Leiden: E.J.Brill, 336–60.
FAN PEN CHEN

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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