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Chinese Shadow Puppetry


Shadow Puppetry

A Guided Introduction

Shadow Puppetry : About Us

General Information 

Shadow puppetry is a folk drama projecting the light on puppets, with stories displayed on a white fabric screen. Shadow puppetry refers to the performance’s unique medium, covering both the performing puppets and background props. Each puppet's head, limbs, and body are separate pieces strung together, each controlled by puppeteers through a stick.

The stylization of puppets and landscape combines the naturalistic and abstract. Figures and background landscapes are flattered and dramatized. The facial designs and apparel of figures are lively and exaggerated for comic effects. Some are simple and rugged, others smooth and romantic. The smooth carving, flamboyant colors, translucency, and agile limbs from skilled craftsmanship make shadow puppetry delightful.

Craftspeople convey a character’s alliances and personality through traditional colors and illustrations. Head and clothing accessories include wind, flowers, grass, and clouds for females, and dragons, tigers, water, and clouds for males. Character archetypes are the same as Beijing Opera, with a male(生), a female(旦), a brash male (净), and a clown(丑). Their sizes range from 10-55cm. 

The puppet-making process involves scraping sheep hide, donkey hide, and hides of other animals without fur, then chemically treating them to make them thinner and translucent before brushing a layer of Tung oil and carving the hide into characters. 


During performances, 3-5 puppeteers sing behind the screen. Other artisans work with percussion and string instruments. Contents are usually folklore, fights, and ancient history. Characters can fly and perform complicated actions, which are impossible to achieve in other dramas.

Shadow puppetry combines plastic arts, performing arts, light art, and combines drama and music. It is the ancestor of modern movies.


The birthplace of shadow puppetry is unclear. Scholars believe shadow puppetry began either in the province of Shaanxi or Henan. However, some scholars believe it began in Shaanxi and spread to Southern China during the Southern Song dynasty, before spreading explosively during the 20th century into Northern Heilongjiang and Southern Guangdong, and even Western Qinghai, where different local styles emerged. Different provinces even developed different schools of puppetry. 


There are different legends about the origins of shadow puppetry. One belief is that the ancient fear of shadows became veneration; another is the evolution from primitive religious totems. The most popular belief is that it evolved from Opera characters. Because the rural economy could not support large stage drama performances, shadow puppetry developed as their replacement miniature drama. 

Early Development

Because shadow puppetry developed from and was passed along generations within the common people, it lacks official recognition. When it started precisely remains unknown. Records about shadow puppetry in books were mainly from the Han Dynasty, as it became popular in the Song. 


A Han dynasty scholar, Ban Gu, noted that the Han Wudi emperor developed shadow puppetry to remember his late wife, Lee. The imitation imagery of Lee by a Fangshi for Han Wudi was allegedly realistic, yet it only required a candle and white screen to produce such a silhouette. The shadow not only resembles Lee but could also walk, so its mechanics were possibly similar to modern shadow puppetry in that the carved puppet was strung together. This houses all the characteristics of modern shadow puppetry, though shadow puppetry was only known and the art weld by Fangshi, the common people, and the techniques a performance secret. 

Unearthed paper cuttings from the three kingdom era date the technique of carving on thin material to those ancient times. Paper Cuttings are closely tied with shadow puppetry. The area near Shaanxi even called shadow puppetry “telling stories through a sheet of paper.” It is similar to the window decoration “fighting rooster” of the Shandong province. This decoration features figures like roosters separated at the joints to allow mobility, then hung on the windows. A sheet of thin paper hanging outside the window is attached to the figure by a thin string. When the wind rustles the paper sheets outside, the roosters would move and appear to be fighting on the window from inside the room.

Shadow puppetry’s role in the Tang dynasty is unknown. However, Buddhism used this type of folk art with moving paper figures as religious propaganda to explain Buddhist principles, named “Stories told through paper shadows.” Similarities in carving are found between a carved leather head decoration in Xi’an and patterns on shadow puppetry. 

Until the Song Dynasty, puppetry was combined with speech art and was a popular art form among the common people. 

There was a kind of humorous wrestling game called “乔影戏” (Imitation Shadow Puppetry) where real people imitate the movement of shadow puppets, creating a humorous effect. 

“Hand shadow puppetry” means making shadows through hands, like modern hand puppets whose shadows people project onto white walls for effects. It could also be miniature shadow puppetry that is performed on the hand. 

“Large shadow puppetry” is a performance with live people, probably a Song dynasty drama inspired by the movements and music of shadow puppetry and controlled puppets. 

Shadow puppetry continued to be popular in cities and towns in the Ming Dynasty. Not only was it widely beloved by the common population, but the cultured people as well. 

Spread to the World

Ming dynasty rulers used Chinese shadow puppetry as entertainment for the court and military. As Genghis Khan conquered much of Eurasia, he also spread Chinese shadow puppetry into Arabian countries like Persia and eventually modern Turkey. Shadow puppetry is also found in Indonesia.
Chinese shadow puppetry spread to Europe in the mid 18th century. In 1767, French missionaries brought it back to France and held performances in Paris and Marseille under the name “Ombres Chinois,” which caused a sensation and was adopted into the French arts after modification. 
, television, and cartoons, earning the titles “The Earliest Cartoon” and “Ancestor of Movies.”

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