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
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.