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Folk Art 13: The Shadow Show
based on material offered by Mr.Du Feibao


The shadow show or leather silhouette play is a type of drama which has its roots in China.

Legend has it that Emperor Wudi (156-87 B.C.) of the Western Han was depressed with the death of his favourite concubine Lady Li. To help him get over the sadness, an occultist sculptured a wooden figure in the likeness of the lady and projected its shadow on a curtain for the emperor to see, bringing him consolation with the belief that the shadow was her spirit. This has been thought to be the beginning of the shadow show.

Today's shadow puppets are made of leather instead of wood for the simple reason that leather is much lighter, easier to manipulate and carry round. The process for making the puppets is as follows: Sheep or donkey skin with hair removed is cleaned and treated chemically to become thin enough to be translucent. Coated with tung oil and dried, it is carved into various parts of dramatic figures. The trunk, head and limbs of a puppet are separately carved but joined together by thread so that each part may. be manipulated by the operator to simulate human movements. The leather puppets are painted with various colours to show their different qualities-- kind or wicked, beautiful or ugly. During the performance, the "actors" are held close to a white curtain with their coloured shadows cast on it by a strong light from behind. Moved by guiding sticks, they play the roles, accompanied by music, with their parts or singing done by the operators. The plays can be quite dramatic and, when it comes to fairy tales or kungfu stories, the "actors" may be made to ride on clouds or perform unusual feats, to the great enjoyment of the audience, especially children.

The shadow show became quite popular as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when holidays were marked by the presentation of many shadow plays. During the Ming (1368 1644), there were 40 to 50 shadow show troupes in the city of Beijing alone.

In the 13th century the shadow show became a regular recreation in the barracks of the Mongolian troops. It was spread by the conquering Mongols to distant countries like Persia, Arabia and Turkey. Later, it was introduced to Southeastern Asian countries, too.

The show began to spread to Europe in the mid-18th century, when French missionaries to China took it back to France in 1767 and put on performances in Paris and Marseilles , causing quite a stir. In time, the ombres chinoises, with local modification and embellishment, became the ombres francaises and struck root in the country.

As present, more than 20 countries are known to have shadow show troupes.

Some people may have gone too far in alleging that the Chinese shadow show heralded the cinematic industry, but it certainly has contributed its bit towards enriching the world's amusement business. Today, when the motion picture and television have become wide spread throughout the world, foreign tourists in China are still keen to see a performance of this ancient dramatic art.

Shadow puppets are also available from certain shops as art souvenirs of the country.

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