Enchanted Stories: Chinese Shadow Theater in Shanxi

All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection
  • Monkey King’s Tour of Inspection Qing dynasty, 125 x 67 cm

Treasures from the Shanxi Provincial Art Gallery


The magic of the movies had a predecessor in the pre-modern world. For centuries, shadow theater — two-dimensional stick-controlled puppets projected onto a translucent, backlit screen — flourished in India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Egypt, Turkey, China, and Europe. All across Eurasia audiences marveled as flickering oil lamps revealed gods and heroes, lovers embracing, and monsters and demons savaging the innocent.

Although shadow theater was widespread, its origins are uncertain: Scholars generally agree that the shadow theater originated in Asia, either in India, Indonesia, Central Asia, or China. Although the most sophisticated traditions of this art form developed in China and Indonesia, there is still a lack of reliable documentary and archaeological proof to show that the shadow theater originated in these countries.1 The earliest evidence for shadow theater in China dates from the Song dynasty (960-1279)2. Also, a cryptic passage from an early history book has long been cited as evidence for shadow theater beginning in the reign of Han dynasty emperor Wu (r. 140-87 BCE) — a magician visits the emperor and makes a beloved dead concubine appear on a curtain. This story probably has nothing to do with shadow theater3, but its setting in the emperor’s court at Chang’an conveniently (and romantically) transports us to Shaanxi province, home to the capitals of thirteen dynasties.

Shaanxi is an ancient center of Chinese culture. One of its treasures is shadow theater, called pi ying xi (literally “leather shadow play”) after the figures puppeteers used. As late as the 1980s, every county in the province had at least one troupe, replete with properties dating back to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). With an extant repertoire of five hundred plays, Shaanxi shadow theater includes myth, folktales, historical legends, love stories, Buddhist hell stories, and comedies.

Enchanted Stories–Chinese Shadow Theater in Shaanxi consists of about ninety figures and stage settings (gates, towers, carriages, furniture, etc.) cut from leather and elaborately colored and decorated. They transport us back to a time before electricity, movies, and television. They come alive as shadows that represent Princes and Princesses, Soldiers, Buffoons, and other Characters, whose gestures are so comformable to the Words of those who move them. . .that one would think the Shadows spoke in reality.4 So wrote the Jesuit J.B. Du Halde (1674-1743) in his Description of the Empire of China, an influential Enlightenment account of Chinese history and culture. Du Halde’s wonderment resonates in the words of a modern observer: I was amazed to see the delicate carving and imaginative decorative patterns of these thin and colorful animal-hide figures and also the skill of the puppeteer, who could make figures walk, a horse run, and smoke rise from tobacco lit by an old man. 5Manipulating the wooden sticks attached to each figure requires years of training. In addition to the puppeteer, each shadow troupe consists of five or six people. A lead singer performs all the vocal roles and plays a hand gong and drum; the others are masters of some sixteen musical instruments. The figures walk and run, tremble with emotion, fly, appear and disappear at will, and change shape–”each figure is a signature of sound and movement…With the orchestra playing, the music’s union with the figure’s movement is a distinct, palpable delight.6 Popular stories such as Journey to the West, The Western Chamber Romance, and Madame White Snake have thrilled and moved viewers down through the centuries. Enchanted Stories — Chinese Shadow Theater in Shaanxi includes figures and decor used in performances of all of these.

In common with Chinese drama as a whole, shadow theater is closely linked to religion, ritual, and the daily life of the community. Families, lineages, or even whole villages would have plays performed to seek the assistance of, or give thanks to the gods.7 Shaanxi shadow troupes would be hired to perform at fairs, marriages, birthday parties, the ceremony for a one-month old baby, house construction, praying for safety, passing official exams, mourning–all are accompanied by shadow play performances for at least one night and up to three or six nights. Each night one to three episodes are put on with over three hours for each episode.

Enchanted Stories reflects this relationship between theater and religion through figures depicting the gods of Good Fortune, Wealth, and Longevity; officials of the heavenly hierarchy; Buddhist and Daoist luminaries; and images of hell and its functionaries engaged in the grisly business of punishing wrong-doers.

Also, Chinese religion, with its Jade Emperor and heavenly bureaucracy, created a world that was a mirror of the earthly world of imperial China. Since the state popularized this image throughout China in late imperial times, “the gods of popular religion, in their relationships to one another and to mortals, identified local communities with the organization of the Chinese state and cosmos.9 Shadow theater thus played a role in integrating local cultures.

All of this makes Enchanted Stories meaningful to K-12 educators as it provides students with insight into both daily life in traditional China and the ideas that shaped it. In addition,

  • It enables discussion and practice of traditional artistic skills at most grade levels;
  • It’s ideal for the multidisciplinary classroom as it embraces literature, music, and the visual arts;
  • In global studies, it’s a rich topic for cultural comparison, since shadow theater appears not only in China, but also in India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Egypt, Turkey, and Europe.

This web-companion gathers together various resources for better understanding shadow theater and its cultural contexts.

1. Fan Pen Chen, “Shadow Theaters of the World,” Asian Folklore Studies 62 (2003), p. 25.

2. Chen, p. 32

3. See Alvin P. Cohen, “Documentation Relating to the Origins of the Chinese Shadow-Puppet Theater,” Asia Major, XIII.1 (2000): 83-108.

4. Chen, p. 46.

5. From Willow Weilan Hai Chang’s foreword to the exhibition catalogue.

6. Richard M. Swiderski, “The Aesthetics of a Contemporary Chinese Shadow Theater,” Asian Folklore Studies 43 (1984): 271.

7. Wilt L. Idema, “Traditional Dramatic Literature,” in Victor H. Mair (ed.), The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (New York; Columbia University Press, 2001), p. 788.

8. Li Hongjun, “The Artistry of Shadow Theater in Shaanxi,” exhibition catalogue.

9. Myron L. Cohen, “Being Chinese: The Peripheralization of Traditional Identity,” in Tu Wei-ming (ed.), The Living Tree–The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 99, 100.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection


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