Celebrating lunar new year with Chinese shadow play

For most people, watching a film is a good choice of entertainment during the holidays.

Did you know people living during ancient times also had a similar type of entertainment? It was shadow play or shadow puppetry. 

Shadow play is an ancient theatrical form of storytelling consisting of three parts. There is a translucent screen in the middle. Behind one side of the screen, a bright light is placed in a certain position and flat images made from sheep parchment and buffalo or donkey skins are manipulated by puppeteers so that the shadows of the images and their "movements" are projected on the screen. On the other side sits the audience. Shadow plays are present in different cultures. According to information on Britannica Library, opens a new window, shadow plays probably originate in China and on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. They are also performed in Turkey and Greece. During the 18th and 19th centuries, shadow plays called ombres chinoises (Chinese shadows) gained popularity in France. 

As a performing art, Chinese shadow puppetry has a long history with different accounts for its origin. The most influential one is based on a romantic tale of Emperor Wu and Lady Li in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). It is said that the Emperor was devastated when Lady Li, one of his favorite concubines, died. A Daoist magician announcing that he had power to summon spirits recreated a figure of Lady Li with pieces of donkey skin and dressed it with beautifully painted clothes. One night, the magician placed curtains around the figure and lit torches while inviting the Emperor to sit behind other side of the curtains. The magician skillfully adjusted the positions of the light and the puppet and made Lady Li's shadow figure move to bring the beloved concubine back to life. 

During the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), various types and troupes of shadow shows proliferated and reached its peak. Shadow shows were performed in private homes, public areas, temples during festivals and the court during special celebrations. During the lantern festival, booths of shadow plays were set up on street corners of residential areas to attract children. The content of shadow plays was always based on historical tales. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), shadow plays were a main entertainment resource in the barracks of Mongol troops. Mongol armies took shadow puppets with them during their invasions. It is believed that this was how shadow puppetry spread to the West. In the Qing Dynasty (1636 - 1912), shadow puppetry was increasingly incorporated into religious rites and folk religious practices. In Modern China, the disdain for the folk religious practices eventually led to the association of shadow puppetry with superstition.

After 1949, shadow puppetry was secularised under the communist regime. Government-sponsored troupes tried to make plays with ideological concerns and cartoon-style animal fables to entertain young audience. Since the late 1970s, shadow puppetry regained its popularity with the resurgence of traditional customs bound to religious rites in rural areas. Nowadays, shadow puppetry is recognised as one of the Chinese cultural heritages. Shadow shows are held in some regions of China, opens a new window during Lunar New Year.

As part of 2020 Lunar New Year Celebration, a special bedtime stories session at Fendalton Library is scheduled at 6.30 - 7.30 pm on 31 January. We welcome you to the session to experience a simple version of shadow puppet storytelling and a chance to enjoy themed crafts

More Lunar New Year celebrations

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