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Chinese Shadow Puppet Show

Chinese Shadow Puppet Show

Chinese shadow puppet show (play), also called Piying Show or Piying Xi in Chinese language, is a traditional folk art, which traces back to the Western Han Dynasty (206BC—25 AD). With puppet silhouettes made out of cow's leather or donkey hide, the shadow show figures of the Guanzhong area of Shaanxi Province are most represented in China. They were modeled after the stone relief patterns that originated in the Han Dynasty. The academic-style painting of the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD) and folk paper-cuts can also be found there. Today, Guanzhong play figures are popular with collectors as home decorations. Most tourists who visit Xian and Shaanxi are willing to buy them as souvenir.

More than 2,000 years ago a favorite concubine of Wu Emperor in the Han Dynasty died of an illness. The emperor missed her so much that he lost his desire to reign. One day a minister saw children playing with dolls where the shadows on the floor were vivid. Inspired by this, the minister came upon an idea. He made a cotton puppet of the concubine and painted it. At night fall, he invited the emperor to watch an illuminated puppet show behind a curtain. The emperor was delighted by it. This story was recorded in the ancient books and is believed to be the origin of shadow puppetry.

Shadow puppet silhouettes were first made with paper sculpture and later using the hides of konkeys or oxen. This is why the Chinese name for shadow puppet silhouette is "pi ying", which means shadows of hides or leather. Shadow puppetry was very popular in the Tang and Song dynasties in across China.

Shadow figure heads have a full profile, known as "half face.” Clown and villains sometimes gave half a profile, called "70% face," while fairies and Buddhas are shown with a full face. Shadow figure's body is mostly 70%. Carving of shadow figures are particular. They requires using a knife with ease and making turns smoothly. The hollowed-out facial outline, in particular, requires an exceptional skill in craftsmanship to make thin lines as "stretching wires," which are sharp and translucent. Body figure using chisel engraving have a variety of designs, including snow flake, character "王" shape, wealth and fortune, winter sweet, fish scale, pine needle and star eyes, etc. Leather silhouette coloring is often bright and transparent, black, red, yellow, or green. Music accompaniments are four string and south string instrument, bowed instrument, four-string moon-shaped instrument, drum, gong, flute, hand allegro and horn. According to geographical localities each place has its own style and characteristic in shadow figure design, music and instrument.

To overcome their limit, shadow puppets use exaggeration and heavy dramatization. The faces and costumes of puppets are vivid and humorous. The flowery color, elegant sculpting and smooth lines make shadow puppets a work of art. A shadow puppet takes as many as 24 procedures and more than 3,000 cuts.

The figure of a shadow puppet show are from the Chinese myths, legends and stories. Their designs follow traditional moral evaluation and aesthetics. The audience can tell a figures character by seeing their mask. Like the masks in the Beijing Opera a red mask represents uprightness, a black mask, fidelity, and a white one, is linked to treachery. The positive shadow figure has long, narrow eyes, a small mouth and a straight bridge on the nose. The negative one has small eyes, a protruding forehead and sagging mouth. The clown has a circle around his eyes, projecting a humorous and frivolous air even before he performs any act.

The rapid development of the modern economy in urban and rural areas, coupled with growing influence of television and film culture, traditional leather silhouette is almost precipitation into distinction nationwide except in a few regions in eastern Gansu, Shaanxi and Liaoning Province. Now only 200 leather silhouette troupes are still around, down from over 1,000 nationwide in the 1980s.