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Chinese Shadow Play, the Forerunner of Modern Movie


Known as the forerunner of modern movie, shadow play is a traditional Chinese folk art with a history of more than 2,000 years. It has also been recognized as the "magic of the East" by Europeans.


Chinese Shadow play is a kind of drama in which paper and leather made silhouettes are projected onto a white screen. Shadow play performers just stand behind the screen and control the silhouettes. When the play gets started, the performers will sing the libretto to tell the story. The story-telling procedure is accompanied by traditional Chinese music.­­­­­­­­­­­


Chinese shadow play was originated in northwest China's Shaanxi Province during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). It began to become quite popular in Song Dynasty. During the Ming Dynasty there were 40 to 50 shadow play troupes in Beijing. Chinese shadow play spread to South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and North Africa in the 13th century. During the 17th century, it came into being in Europe. The famous German poet Goethe also staged European opera in the form of Chinese shadow play.



The shadow play silhouette is usually made of clean cowhide or donkey skin, with hair removed and colored by five pure watercolors of red, yellow, green, light green and black. The skin should be translucent after chemical treatment. So the shadow can be endowed with magnificent transparent color on screen, which endows the play a great charm.


The roles of Chinese shadow play fall into five categories, namely Sheng, Dan, Jing, Mo and Chou. The difference is that every “players” consists of 11 parts including head, two body parts, two legs, two upper arms and lower arms as well as two hands. Drawn by the performers through controlling bars and threads, “players” can do various kinds of vivid movements. Shadow play demands for high performing skills. Besides control three or four “players” at a time, performers have to catch up with the tempo and musical accompany as well as pay attention to dialogue and singing. Hence, it is not an easy job to train a mature shadow play performer.


Unfortunately, the ancient art has gradually fallen from the limelight due to the impact of modern audio-visual media such as television and movies. Many shadow play groups have been disbanded, and many of the most talented artists have died. In many areas, certain types of plays and the art of performance are actually nearing extinction.


However, the unique feature of shadow play makes it a high valuable cultural heritage in Chinese art field. Both Chinese artists and the government are making great efforts to protect the ancient art form. And China is applying to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) for a certification as an intangible cultural heritage.

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