A Cultural Journey to China for Chinese Shadow Play

For most of the travelers, getting to know local traditions, art and culture is a huge part of the worldwide travel experience, especially the various enchanted folk arts. Chinese shadow play or Chinese shadow puppetry known as a very old form of theatre in China, is such kind of folk art that is acted by nifty silhouette figures made from leather or paper, accompanied by quaint old-world percussion and string music and singing, and tells an assortment of tales and stories. An authentic yet wonderful shadow play will offer a special China travel to remember!

Chinese shadow puppetry

How the shadow puppeteer works? 

Chinese shadow play was traditionally an evening entertainment, when there was no big flat-screen TV. People would entertain themselves with a simple shadow play and indulged in the lingering or adventurous stories. It is operated by puppeteers with their hands by using rods. A lamp illuminates a translucent cloth screen from behind, then the little figures create the illusion of moving images on the screen. Of course music and singing are added. Chinese shadow plays can be performed by large troupes with seven to nine performers, or smaller troupes of two to five people. This theatrical performances somewhat created ancient cartoons of China. Unfortunately, shadow puppetry shows face extinction today, and require more attention!

Chinese Shadow Play

The history of Chinese shadow play

The shadow play has its origin from a romantic story more than 2000 years ago, written by the great Chinese historian Sima Qian of Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). In his story a man named Shaoweng “revived” Wu Emperor’s favorite concubine who had died from illness, by asking Wu Emperor (of Han Dynasty) to sit behind a curtain, watching those “magic practices”. The performance of Shadow play came to flourish in Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD), and gradually spread to the West world in the 13th century when Mongols conquered China.

Shadow play     Shadow Play in China

How to make a silhouette figure of Chinese shadow puppetry 

Shadow play was very popular in China. They are Peking shadow puppetry, Chuan shadow puppetry, Shannxi shadow puppetry and others, each with their own characteristics. Yet, the making methods of silhouette figures are almost the same. Firstly, pick the appropriate material – the hides of donkeys or oxen. Secondly, soak the hides in water, remove the hair, meat residue and shave it thin. Thirdly, draw the outline of the figure. Fourthly, carve. Fifthly, apply the color. Sixthly, Iron the figure into a flat one. Finally, string the different parts of the figure together, and make sure each part can move flexibly.

Shadow puppetry in China  

Shadow puppetry shows in Xian

Chinese shadow plays can be historical plays, fairy tales, legends, romantic stories, ghost stories, plays of social criticism… Shaanxi shadow puppetry is believed to be the most typical. The Academy Gate Cultural Street in Xian is a nice place for shadow puppets souvenirs of various sizes and colors. Moreover, you can have a shadow play in the following theatres of Xi’an. Just better for you to read the play first to learn the story.

ⅰ. Yi Su Theatre (易俗大剧院) on North Avenue

ⅱ. Gaojia Theatre (高家大院) at the North Gate of Muslim Quarter

Chinese Shadow Play on YouTube depicts the famous story – The Journey to the West

Shadow Play in Xian


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