Minnan shadow play - the wonderful art of light and shadows

Updated: 18 Nov 2009
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Shadow play has survived in China for over 2000 years. Using a transparent white cloth screen, artists manipulate the illuminated puppet figures to show the audiences a magic world of light and shadows. It is an artistic combination of opera, music, fine art and special craftsmanship.
Chinese shadow play can be divided into north and south faction. As an important part of the south faction, Minnan(south Fujian) shadow play has a long history of more than 500 years. It was earlier introduced into Quanzhou and soon became popular in Xiamen.

Sophisticated puppet figures


Puppets have a very elaborate production process. Sheep or donkey skins should go through four separate chemical treatments until they become thin enough to be translucent. After being coated with tung oil and dried, they are carved into dramatic figures and then painted various colours to show off their various qualities - kind or wicked, beautiful or ugly.


The heads and limbs of the puppets are separately carved and joined with thread, so that the puppets can simulate human movement. A puppet needs 3-5 guiding sticks. Experienced shadow play artists always dazzle the audiences with their great skills. They can act out dialogues and play the instruments while moving the puppets.


Shadow play artists manipulate the illuminated puppet figures


The screen is a one metre long translucent gauze treated with fish oil. During performances, "actors" are held close to the screen with their coloured shadows cast on it by a strong light from behind. Moved by guiding sticks, the puppets play roles with musical accompaniment.


It is said that shadow play is derived from evocation. Emperor Wudi (156-87 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty was very depressed with the death of his favorite concubine, Lady Li. To help him get over his sadness, Minister Li Shaoweng made a puppet out of cotton and silk in the likeness of the lady and projected its shadow on a curtain for the emperor to see. The show brought the emperor some consolation. He somehow believed the shadow was his lover's spirit.


After 500 years of vicissitudes, the shadow play has been lost in Quanzhou and only 3 people in Xiamen have inherited this art. It was listed in the protection catalogue of intangible cultural heritage in 2008.


Xiamen plans to establish a Minnan Shadow Play Education Centre to carry on this traditional art. The centre will be located in the Xiamen Art & Culture Centre and opens to public at the beginning of next year.



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