Shadow play is a special drama rooted in China. It is a kind of performing art with manifold arias and genres. As an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment, it uses opaque, often articulated figures in front of an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images. Legend has it that Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty became depressed after the death of his favorite concubine. To help him cope with his loss, an occultist sculpted a wooden figure in her likeness and projected the sculpture's shadow on a curtain for the emperor. Seeing the shadow was a source of comfort to the emperor, who believed the shadow was her spirit. That is the story of how Chinese shadow plays began.
The folk art became flourished in the Song Dynasty. Its popularity culminated in the Yuan Dynasty, when it was a common form of recreation in the barracks of Mongolian troops. The conquering Mongols spread it to distant countries - Persia, Arabia and Turkey. Later, it was introduced to Southeastern Asian countries. It gained popularity in Europe in the mid-18th century, after French missionaries to China took the shadow figures back to France. Fascinated by the figures, they began performing shadow plays. In 1767, such performances were put on in Paris and Marseilles. Famous German poet Goethe in 1774 introduced a Chinese shadow play to a German audience at an exhibition. He was extremely fond of this oriental art form. On August 28, 1781 he celebrated his 32nd birthday with a Chinese shadow play performance.
However, shadow puppets today are made of leather instead of wood because leather is lighter, easier to manipulate and less difficult to carry. The puppets are painted with colors representing different human qualities - kindness, wickedness, beauty or ugliness. During performances, the "actors", controlled by guiding sticks, are held close to a white curtain, and their colored shadows are cast on the cloth by a powerful light. Behind the curtain the performers manipulate the silhouettes to act, accompanied by songs, music or dialogues. The plays can be quite dramatic and, when it comes to fairy tales or kungfu stories, the "actors" may be made to ride on clouds or perform unusual feats, to audiences' enjoyment, like the one entitled "Monkey King's fights against Ox-King" recently staged at the shadow play hall in the National Museum of China in Beijing.
Not only acclaimed by farmers, it was also put on in the imperial palace. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi, an official ranking the fifth place was in charge of shadow play. At that time the shadow play troupes performed puppets in the daytime and shadow play for home celebration at night.
Some people may give shadow play too much credit when they suggest it heralded the film industry. At least, it has enriched the world's amusement business. However, it gradually faded from the limelight with the advent of modern audiovisual media – primarily television and movies. Many shadow play groups were disbanded and many of the most talented artists died. It is nearly extinct in most regions. Fortunately, it is alive and well in some areas in the country.