Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Chinese Shadow Puppets

Photo Credit: Ernie Reyes
It is said that shadow puppets originated in China, over 2000 years ago. Legend tells of an Emperor so heartsick at the loss of his favorite concubine that he no longer had the will to rule. One of his advisers was inspired by how life like shadows were when watching children play, and conjured a puppet whose shadow resembled the beloved concubine. The Emperor was revived. 

Photo Credit: Ping
Shadow puppetry became the people's art form. There were nightime performances for all celebrations - house raisings, birthdays, weddings, funerals, and festival celebrations. It was an important part of community entertainment, and a quick way of spreading a message or story since most peasants were illiterate. It was one of the most wide spread folk arts in China, popular in each region. As with most traditional arts, it is losing its popularity to modern forms of entertainment.

Carving a shadow puppet from donkey hide
Photo Credit: Sheila

Traditional Chinese shadow puppets are thin enough to be translucent yet still rigid. They are made out of hide, most often donkey hide, with carvings and cut out designs. The trunk, head and limbs are separate pieces that are attached together with a string to create movement. The puppets are painted with bright colors

If you'd like to see photos of these puppets being made, you can find more about leather carving here, painting here, and engineering here.

Shadow puppet performance in Beijing (2007)
Photo Credit: Sheila
Shadow puppet sets can be elaborate, though as a folk art are more often simple. Music and singing are part of the show, and traditionally the narrative is sung. The shows are backlit, and the proper use of lighting is important to get the best effect. 

The red face on this warrior represents uprightness
Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbera
The story line for most Chinese shadow puppet shows come from legends, myths, and operas. The Monkey King is still a popular subject today.

To learn about the beloved hero and trickster, Sun Wukong - The Monkey King, read our earlier post here.

Pigsy (Zhu Ba Jie) is one of the Monkey King's travel companions on his journey to India to help Monk retrieve Buddhist scriptures.
Photo Credit: Jimmie

ChineseShadowPuppetry.com is an excellent website for anyone interested in learning more about this traditional art form.

If you'd like to make your own Chinese shadow puppets, check out our next post:

Making Chinese Shadow Puppets

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