The Largest Chinese Shadow Puppetry Collection in the World

The Chengdu Shadow Puppet Museum (a branch of the main Chengdu Museum) was recently named China’s Shadow Puppet Museum.   To be clear, only one museum in China can receive this honor.  Subsequently, they shut down their old museum and are building a bigger and better space near the center of the city.  However, during my visit they were still closed to the public.  Thanks to Professor Jiang and his former student ChenWenJing, who now works at the museum, I was allowed to see their temporary displays set up in a make-shift office space on the west side of town.


ChenWenJing met my translator Cecilia and I at the bottom of a non-descript tiled office building on a smolderingly hot spring day.  I made the mistake of biking there.

We trudged up a few flights of stairs, passed their temporary offices, and kept trudging upwards to a locked door with no sign.

We paused to wait for a security guard and a few other official looking people to come unlock the door and sign us in.  
After a quick scuffle of pens and keys, we were ushered into the adjoining hallway.

What lays beyond is an absolute gold mine of Chinese shadow puppetry.  They have everything.  All in one place.  Even with the temporary displays, the pieces stood for themselves – organized by region or grouped with similar items for comparison.

I floated through seven full rooms of light box after light box.  Many things I had seen in pictures before, but many were completely new to me.   Human puppets, monsters, creatures, scenic elements, borders – from every region where puppetry was active within the last 200 years.

Gorgeousness abounds.  I shall stop talking here and just let the puppets speak for themselves.

(Pardon the shorthand notes, I have not had a chance to transcribe my audio recording – hopefully you get the gist and the breadth of this small sampling of their small sampling of their full collection)

And if you are in Chengdu after Summer 2012 – stop by and see for yourself

Thanks for reading…and looking~

Photo Note: All photos and puppets photographed are from the China Shadow Puppet Museum of Chengdu   成都中国皮影博物馆

One of seven rooms

Chengdu Style Woman Warrior (Approx. Heigh is 2′ 4″)

Chengdu Style Middle Aged Characters (Full Approx. Heigh 2’4″)

Chengdu Style Old Man (Full Approx. Heigh 2’4″)

A typical presentation.  Shaanxi style heads on the left facing NE style heads on the right.   Great to see them side by side.

Gansu province style puppets.  (Full Approx. Heigh 14″)

A comparison of chairs:  4 selected photos.  The collection has a few commonly found shadow puppet scenic elements in comparison on their own large light box.  

Chair 2.  Twig/wood like.

Chair 3.  Made to look natural/stone like.

Chair 4.  With deer design.

Bridge of Swallows.

Tangshan style puppets (NE region), old man.  (Full Approx. Heigh 14-16″)

Tangshan style puppets (NE region).  (Full Approx. Heigh 14-16″)

Yunnan style puppet.  (Approx.  Heigh 18″ – 2′)

My favorite collection on display; placed in late Ming/early Qing Dynasty.  These puppets are around 400 years old.  Their patterned bodies are entirely unique.

Full body example of late Ming/early Qing.

Body pattern close up of late Ming/early Qing puppet.

Thanks for taking a look!~

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10 responses to “The Largest Chinese Shadow Puppetry Collection in the World

  1. Wow, they are amazing.

  2. Don MacLeod

    I am so envious! These are spectacular.
    Your magic journey continues.
    Thank you for sharing your passion for this artform.

  3. Wow. Magic. Spectacularly amazing artform, I concur.
    Do the bodies reflect the armor that soldiers were wearing at that time, I wonder? All those old China movies we saw before our trip had some incredible costumes that echo those forms, but I think they were way before Ming Dynasty. How did that pigskin last for 400 yrs? Mind boggling.

  4. The most amazing thing to me is how they can convey age, emotion and beauty in those heads…..with just a few judicious lines (cuts). It is drawing at it’s simple best.

  5. Ellen MacLeod

    They are gorgeous! Thank you.

  6. Steve Budas

    Annie,
    These are absolutely phenomenal. I hope you plan to write a book about your journey as I am sure this kind of documentation can’t be found in the Western World anywhere. WOW. How exciting for us who still have most of the year ahead of us to enjoy your future reports. Your notes are always a highlight of my week. Keep up your hard work, or shall I say your hard play?

  7. When I look at this work I am inspired by the incredible patience and presence of mind it took to make them. In a world of pre-fabrication, we forget how much human energy an object, especially artwork like this can contain. It must have been awesome to absorb that practically alone (oh yes, you have a translator! wow!)

  8. Thanks so much for your feedback everyone! Aren’t they just amazing? Steve, I’d love to get a book documenting the unbelievable craft and diversity of Chinese shadow puppetry out there.
    So happy you all thing they’re beautiful too!

  9. Janmarie Halliday

    Thank you so much for this wonderful and educational information on your visit to the museum. My 8th grade Visual Arts classes are creating their own Chinese Shadow puppets and any resources we can collect add to the experience.

  10. Totally blown away. Thank you for taking this adventure and reporting on it. How’s that book coming? So glad I found your blog.

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