A Bit O History

It’s exactly one month before I depart on what will surely be one of the greatest adventures of my life.  Ten months of shadow puppet research in China.  Ten months of ONLY shadow puppet research.

I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

My passion for Chinese shadow puppetry, admittedly, can cloud my awareness.  It just dawned on me that most of you, if not all, have had no formal introduction of what Chinese shadow puppetry is or was.

THE ORIGIN OF SHADOWS

Shadow Puppetry was created in China over two thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty.  The origination legend tells of an Emperor who has just lost his Empress and subsequently his will to rule.   As the Emperor’s wisest advisor pondered the best way to revive the Emperor’s spirits, he came upon children playing in the courtyard with parasols under the midday sun.  Their simple parasols cast shadows that came to life before his very eyes.  That night, the Advisor invited the Emperor to the courtyard for a special performance; there he conjured the likeness of the late Empress with such mastery that the Emperor was revived and went on to rule for many prosperous years.

Despite its high profile origins, shadow puppetry quickly became a people’s art form; it’s simplicity, portability and nighttime performances were perfectly suited for the working classes.  Farmers and laborers took up puppeteering, singing, musical instruments and storytelling after the sun went down to create a tradition that became the heart of their communities.   All night performances were held for any and all occasions; birthdays, weddings, house raisings, and funerals.  For the past two thousand years, the art form survived everything from war and famine, to regime changes and the Cultural Revolution.

Sadly, only now in the 21st century, shadow puppetry in China is on a steep and fast decline. This ancient art form has steadily been losing the battle with television, video games and other forms of entertainment in China’s swiftly modernizing republic. Audiences and apprentices are evaporating at an alarming rate.

Shadow puppetry in China is still hanging on through government funded “preservation” efforts, museums, academia and tourism. During my journey, I hope to make contact with puppet masters, scholars, enthusiasts to hear what they have to say about its past, present and future.  Of course, I’ll be posting what I find here…for you.

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