- Make us your homepage -
Simplified ChineseTraditional Chinese

Latest Update

Shadow-puppetry sees bright light ahead

Updated: 05 07 , 2013 19:39
Shadow-puppetry, a traditional Chinese folk art with a history of more than 2,000 years, has embarked on a path towards revival after a period of decline, thanks to conservation efforts and lasting interest in the genre in rural areas.
Take a creaking shoulder pole, three shabby cases of stage properties, and six simple-hearted performers who look like local villagers, and you have the Chinese shadow-puppetry troupe that calls itself Shanhua (Mountain Flowers).
The troupe, founded in 1933 in Zaozhuang City, in east China's Shandong Province , has not only staged its wondrously orchestrated dramas in villages around the province, but has also toured more than 20 provinces and municipalities across the country.
With over 6,000 performances over the years, the troupe has won hearty acclaim from audiences that now total somewhere in the range of 500,000 people, according to Chen Shouke, head of the troupe.
Chen's father Chen Deyi founded the troupe when he was less than 20 years old. His son is equally devoted to shadow-puppetry and was his father's avid student until the old man passed away in 1987 at the age of 73.
Chen says that his troupe does at least 100 shows every year, and each performance takes from three to six hours. Sometimes, a performance can last almost the whole night, as enthusiastic viewers keep asking for encores, according to Chen.
Generally speaking, the troupe stays at a village for seven to eight days. According to Ma Qingfa, the senior performer of the troupe, on occasion, when the villagers are reluctant to let him and his fellow puppeteers go, they might linger on in a village for as long as a month.
Before retirement, Ma was a village head, but his duties didn't prevent him from participating in the troupe's shadow plays whenever he could during the slack season. Now he happily devotes all his time to the troupe as a professional performer.
A kind of precursor to modern cinema, the shadow-puppet play is a kind of drama in which puppets made of hard paper and buffalo or donkey hide are silhouetted against a white screen that is illuminated from behind. The puppeteers manipulate the articulated puppet figures against the back of the screen while singing the stories' librettos accompanied by music.
Chinese shadow-puppetry, which originated some 2,000 years ago in North China, flourished in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), eventually spreading to South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and North Africa in the 13th century. The ancient Chinese art even made its way to Europe in the 17th century.
Back home in China, shadow-puppet plays, with their distinctive folklore styles, were almost the only form of entertainment in Chinese villages until about two decades ago.
But the ancient art gradually faded out of the limelight with the arrival of modern media such as television and movies. Many shadow-puppet troupes have been disbanded, and many of the most talented artists have passed away. Certain types of plays and methods of performance are actually close to extinction.
Fortunately, the shadow-puppet play is still alive and warmly welcome by people in some rural areas in China. In the face of competition from modern forms of entertainment, shadow-puppet troupes have changed their mode of operation in order to hold their audiences.
The Shanhua Troupe, for instance, always lets local audiences decide on the time and venues for each of its performances. The performers always agree to the villagers' requests to delay a show until a favorite TV program is over, and sometimes they even start a performance at midnight, after people have turned off their TVs.
When they performed at Banshang Village of Shuiquan Town, in Shandong, last year, they had over 3,000 viewers for each show, Ma recalled.
On the second night of their performance, a neighboring village showed a film about the legends of eight immortals in Chinese folklore.
By coincidence, this was also the theme of the troupe's show that night.
Halfway through their performance, the players found many people coming in, and heard some of them saying: "The film is far less interesting than the shadow-puppet play!"
Challenged by the indifference of the young, the troupe has kept adding new dramas to its repertoire and tries its best to adapt to local tastes. This in part explains the moving scene last winter when the troupe staged a show at Shuangshanhou Village of Shancheng Town, in Shandong.
They started the play in a classroom of the village school but when the audience kept on thronging in, they had to move outside into the school ground.
It began to snow in the middle of the show, so several viewers went behind the screen to hold umbrella s for the performers.
When the show ended in the morning, the audience applauded wholeheartedly, although they were still brushing snowflakes off their clothes.
Chen Shouke is fully confident of his troupe's future. He is planning to buy a vehicle and new amplifiers to improve their performances.
To Chen and many other shadow-play puppeteers' joy, the Chinese Government is applying to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for certification of this ancient art form as an intangible cultural heritage.
Related Stories