Skip to content Skip to footer

Shadow puppetry originated in China for a grieving emperor

Many people think of shadow puppetry as a southeast Asian tradition, but historians say it started in China more than 2,000 years ago. In 2011, this ancient art was added to the official list of items of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. Emily Zhou reports

MORE THAN TWO THOUSAND years ago during the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu’s beloved concubine Lady Li passed away. He felt too heartbroken to hold court. One day a minister, Li Shaoweng (李少翁), saw children holding dolls in their hands, and the dolls’ shadows on the ground were eye-catching as they were moved around. Inspired by the scene, he cut a piece of stiff cloth into Lady Li’ s figure, painted it with bright colors and a beautiful face, and installed thin wooden sticks at the joint of “limbs”.

At night, he set a gauze screen with a candle behind it, operating the sticks in his hands to let the “cloth Lady Li” move. Watching the dancing “Lady Li” in the candlelight, the emperor was delighted, and since then, shadow puppetry (皮影戲) spread across China.

Shadow puppetry is an ancient two-dimensional art. Image: 南方人物周刊

As time passed, makers of shadow puppets (皮影) gained raw materials which were more malleable and less corruptible: the leather of sheep, oxen or donkeys. Traditional authentic shadow puppets are 100 per cent handmade. Craftsmen first polish a big piece of leather until they are semi-transparent, then brush tung oil (桐油) on the leather surface and carve the facial expressions and costumes of the puppets on the smooth two-dimensional plane.

Right up to now, shadow puppetry has been popular in Xi’an (西安), the capital of the Han. But new problems have emerged which are impossible to ignore.  

Wang Tianwen (汪天穩) is an old shadow puppet craftsman in Shaanxi Province (陝西省). He started to learn the technique at 11 in the early 1960s.

“At that time, master and apprentice are more like father and son.” Mr Wang said, “I not only learned skills from my master but also did chores for him, including errands and even cleaning the toilet.”

But Wang was not complaining at all. “I believed only if I spared no effort to take good care of my master, he would be willing to teach me everything he had.”

Fortunately, Wang got his just deserts. His master Mr Li Zhanwen (李占文), decided to teach Wang the secret carving technique known as “leading knife by pushing leather” (推皮走刀).

Wang Tianwen is carving on a piece of leather. Image: 南方人物周刊

“It was very hard,” Wang said. “In the beginning, I just pushed the leather with the three fingers of my left hand and held a carving knife in the right hand to carve patterns. Months later, my master put a couple of bricks on my left backhand, and after years he hung three bricks on my wrist. No matter how many heavy things pressed on my left hand, my master always asked me to keep my hand stable.”

Three years of hardworking practice guaranteed his hand never trembled in the following decade’s work. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the golden time of shadow puppetry in China. The audience waiting for the puppetry could not be shooed away even in the heavy snow, and foreign customers quickly bought out all the shadow puppets made by Mr Wang.

“A Phoenix Flying through peonies”(《鳳穿牡丹》) is a fan-shaped illustration made by Wang. Image: 南方人物周刊

But things have changed since 2000. Today, it is hard to find young people willing to contribute the ten years plus it takes to learn the traditional shadow puppet handicraft. People can get a set of machine-made shadow puppets with a few tens of yuan online anytime.

“I was so depressed when I saw this artistry made by efforts of decades cost a low price,” Wang’s daughter Haiyan (汪海燕) said. “The present situation of shadow puppets strikes a strong resemblance to a person wearing colorful dress but walking in the dark night.”

Her father’s masterpieces were sent to the museum for exhibitions, but most people only paid attention to the appearance of shadow puppets instead of appreciating the inner culture and beauty.   

Haiyan learns techniques from her father. Image: 南方人物周刊

Haiyan decided to make a transition. She made shadow puppets of modern anime characters and showed them to her father but got an irritating reply: “It’s ridiculous!” For a long time after that, they ignored each other, but both were considering how to confront the challenges in the future. Later in 2016, Haiyan cooperated with international luxury brands, incorporating the classical elements of shadow puppets, including emblazonments of “snow” (雪花紋) and “fish scale” (魚鱗甲紋) into corresponding products. The fashion show got a warm welcome from young people, encouraging Haiyan to take her works to the Venice Biennale.  

Masterpiece “Farewell My Concubine” contains traditional emblazonment “fish scale”. Image: 南方人物周刊

During the exhibition, the foreign audience filled the venue. Some could not get a seat and sat in the aisle. As soon as the tunes of Erhu played in the venue, Mr Wang gave a retrospection of the old days of shadow puppetry’s peak era.

At the moment, Mr Wang and his daughter have established Wang’s Shadow Puppet Studio (汪氏皮影工作室) in Xi’an and brought in high-end printers to attract more teenagers to enjoy do-it-yourself shadow puppets manufacturer. Combined with printers, the size of patterns is much easier to zoom in and out, which was a tough thing in the past. 

Paper shadow puppets are children’s favourite. Image: 南方人物周刊

Behind the door of Wang’s house, an old craftsman still concentrates on carving the smooth leather into various features. Even in the hot summer, he never turns on the air conditioner, in case the leather dries. This is the most heart-warming image for Haiyan. Now she has specific goals. When exploring the modernization of shadow puppets, she feels secure because her father will safeguard the essence of traditional shadow puppetry together with her.

Image at the top from Wikimedia Commons.

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Be the first to know the latest updates

Whoops, you're not connected to Mailchimp. You need to enter a valid Mailchimp API key.