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Huining Puppetry 


Huining Puppetry 

General Information

Huining puppetry is popular in the Southeast and middle areas of Huining such as the Dinggou and Macha villages. Its history dates back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. According to the 1994 version of 会宁县志 [A Chronicle of the history of Huining], “shadow puppetry, also known as light shadows; building a shaft in situ or using a residence place, using a smooth white paper paste to make a screen called 亮子 which is placed on the table, carving background props and characters on hide. During performances, one person acts as a puppeteer, while multiple others accompany through music and sing lyrics. The performance repertoires are usually historical drama, the most common being the Investitures of the Gods and Journey to the West.”

Huining the County

The historical county of Huining is located in the middle of the Gansu Province, where traces of civilization date back to the Neolithic period. Huining was one of the origins of agricultural society and a major hub on the silk road, having been established more than 2,100 years ago in the western Han dynasty. Huining has 28 towns, 580,000 people, and an area of 6,439 square KM. It is naturally cold and dry, and these harsh environments gave it the nickname of “The most Bitter/Harsh place under the Sky.” Huning has always been a hub and birthing place of many Chinese scholars, with 20 Jinshi during the Ming and Qing dynasties, over 100 Juren and over 400 nominees for Civil Service. Its legacy of scholarly excellence continues to this day. Modern Huining also houses many protected heritages.


Allegedly, Huining puppetry flourished at the end of the Ming Dynasty (beginning of Qing). Artifacts remaining from the Ming Dynasty testifies to Huining puppetry’s long history of more than 400 years. The first recorded Huining shadow puppeteer is Jinshan Niu (born in 1899). Huining puppetry is passed down in generations, with today marking the third. During the time of the Republic of China, after the Chinese “Liberation,” shadow puppetry slowly began regaining its popularity, but was forced to a stop during the Cultural Revolution, and back on stage in 1977. After the 1980s, after deliberate attempts to reinvigorate the art, more renowned puppeteers emerged and passed on Huining puppetry to this day. in 2009, Huining puppetry was listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Ganu province. Huining currently has more than 10 puppetry troops, 12 puppeteers, and 4 puppet craftspeople, who are active within the county and spread along with the 10+ towns along the Southeast area of Huining. The shadow puppetry exchanges between local areas still exist.

Singing Schools

Huining puppetry uses different schools of singing styles such as [light shadow school] 灯影腔、[Qin school] 秦腔、[Meihu school] 眉户 and uses Suona tunes, percussion, and pure speaking. The styles are diverse and flexible, the tunes are rich and colorful. Sometimes overflowing with ecstasy, sometimes with tragic grandeur. Sometimes the tunes meander and twist, like cries and reminiscences of sadness. Huining puppetry is an amalgamation of the three distinct singing schools, where the [light shadow school] 灯影腔 is a local specialty of Gansu province and Huinning puppetry. At the start of the show, the instruments back up a distinct tune, then the puppeteer begins the story with their lyrical songs, with other voices joining in. Throughout the performance, tunes are switched back and forth, with a lingering sense of chaos and ancient flamboyance. The aftertaste lingers long after the performance. 

The singing style of Huining puppetry is high and intense. The schools of singing usually switching between the [light shadow] 灯影 school and [qin] 秦 school. The high and intense notes are specialties of the 秦 school, which are also featured in the [light shadow] 灯影 school. Only high notes can echo in a sea of tall mountains and release the grandeur emotions. Only intense sounds can express feelings like the rolling yellow river in a desolate landscape of mountains and plains. Puppeteers are often engrossed in the performance in a transcendence state, with hands whipping puppets around, spirits soaring, voice strung on ancient tunes, and red light reflecting on the face as if drunk. At this moment, the audiences also hold their breaths and lets the performance lead their spirits and emotions. Shadow puppetry brings the audience and performer together into a transcendence, where communication is by heart. It truly is an art of the people. 

Because shadow puppetry usually uses historical stories and heroes as the focus of performances, performances are also historically educational for the audience. Additionally, there are lessons about ethics and life philosophies combined with the art, making the performances educational for all.

Musical Instruments

The instruments used in performance include traditional Chinese instruments. [names in Chinese: 大鼓、干鼓、牙子、梆子、锣、钹、磬、二胡、板胡、中弦、三弦、唢呐、笛呐、笛子] The main prop is the “shadow window,” or the white screen, as well as an oil lamp and background landscape props.

The Puppets

Carving and Unique Features

The shadow puppets are realistic with delicate carving, carves cuts are often relieved or cut completely through the hide. Usually, one set of puppets (body and limbs) comes with multiple head accessories, resulting in the saying “Many heads, few bodies.” Huining puppetry sports many head accessories which all have their unique shapes, flamboyant colors, and lively stylization.

The Performance

Shadow puppetry performances are also called “Catching the String.” The performance is by a puppeteer who controls the puppets’ actions while singing. Actions include walking, lying down, kneeling, fixing the hair, clasping the hands in greeting, lifting the robe, whipping the sleeve and more. The character’s performances include fighting with weapons, or flying. All the actions are nimble and artistic. The shrews are feisty, the monsters cruel, the scholars are neat and tidy, and the clowns are ludicrous. The performance is really marvelous and interesting.

Traditional Scripts

Existing Huining puppetry has over 300 scripts and more than 140 repertoires, the contents mostly being moral stories, legends about good and evil, historical stories about kings and prodigies, songs of praise for heroes, and stories about hard work. Additionally, contents include domestic affairs between women and ethics between concubines, showing the Ren and Yi principles of Daoism, as well as the traditional culture, social codes, domestic life, life philosophies, and life stories of the local rural population.


Every Spring, Huining farms invite shadow puppetry troops to perform in order to pray for the coming year’s good weather and harvest. After the Autumn harvest, troops perform to celebrate the harvest. In temple fairs and traditional folk festivals, shadow puppetry is the quintessential performing art. Shadow puppetry is also used to celebrate a newborn’s first month and an elder’s birthday.

Huining puppetry’s medium of expression is the puppets’ talks, conflicts, and songs, containing pieces of history, religion, folk traditions, and arts, showing the union of people and nature in an agricultural background. Huining puppetry is also a venerative culture, where people thank the gods through prayer, wishes, and celebrations of harvest, resulting in the union of people with gods, people with nature, and art with life. The diversity of repertoires also teaches morals to the masses, peace between neighbors, and maintaining filial piety within homes. It teaches about traditional folk culture and morals and manifests the psyche of the rural populations. 

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