Category Archives: History

A Revolution in Shadows

Even though shadow puppetry was widely banned throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), performances still took place. Most of these were pre-approved stories and dramas that towed the line for the New Republic of China, replacing stories of warlords and emperors and other eradicated roles in society.

Many troupes preferred to lay down their shadows all together, rather than take up this new directive. Some troupes weren’t given the choice. Since the 1980s, these shows have not been performed much, if at all. And, when asked about them, I usually get a muttered and incomprehensible answer. Probably, it’s a subject most would like to forget.

Still, I love what few Communist-era shadow puppets I have been able to glimpse. The aesthetic is so different, so modern and simplified – and still so striking. Politics do nothing to sway me here – the puppets are beautiful. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading and looking~

These puppets are all housed in the Luanzhou Shadow Puppet Museum in Hebei Province.

Note: The soldiers in green are Communist soldiers; soldiers in gold/yellow are Guomindang (Kuomintang) or the National Revolutionary’s Army soldiers.












Chinese Shadow Puppetry in the History Books

IMG_4468A young scholar approaches two young ladies.

The silence on this blog for the last few months has not been for lack of content, on the contrary!  I’ve just begun my long road to a PhD and my focus, of course, is Chinese shadow puppetry.  Luckily, so far it has been nothing short of wonderful.  As one of my friends put it, “I think you’re the only person enjoying their first PhD semester in the entire world.”

My enjoyment is partially because the program I’m studying in is a flexible, practice-based interdisciplinary PhD, which is perfect for a self-guided student such as me.  I know what I need and they’re giving me the support to do just that.  Mostly, though, it’s because I love what I’m doing.  Spending days curled up on the couch, reading deeply about the form I care about so much is nothing short of a privilege.

In the last few months, I’ve finally had the chance to read through the written texts I’ve collected over the years about Chinese shadow puppetry and even find a few more.  I’ve spent time in rare books collections, made indulgent use of the inter-library loan system and absolutely exploited my newfound access to online journal databases.  It’s not easy to hunt this stuff down, almost as hard as tracking down a troupe in the countryside of China.

What’s struck me in the canon of texts is just how different the understanding of the form is depending on who’s writing about it.  This is true for anything – our position in the world so limiting our purview on everything we see – but strikingly true here.   In some ways, this was frustrating at first.  How was I supposed to make sense of it?  And in other ways this is exactly what is has to be and always will be.  A live performance art form is evolving in every iteration, every performance.  Multiply this by region, generation and circumstance and you do have a pluralistic performance art form that can be almost anything you choose to describe it as.

Whatever I end up writing or creating to communicate my understanding of shadow puppetry will fall into this category sooner or later:  there is no way to capture its full essence, existence or possibility in any form.  Thank goodness, or I’d be gearing up for a pretty boring five years.

Thanks for reading~


A short compiled Bibliography for anyone who is interested!

This list is certainly not exhaustive, but fairly complete of the easier to find texts in English.  Some are journal articles and some are books.  Most can be obtained from Jstor’s Online Journal Database, the inter-library loan system and your local library.

Chang, Lily. The lost roots of Chinese shadow theater: a comparison with the actors’ theater of China. Los Angeles, CA: Lecture at University of Southern California, 1982. Print.

Chen, Fan. Visions for the masses: Chinese shadow plays from Shaanxi and Shanxi. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 2004. Print.

Chen, Fan. Chinese shadow theatre history, popular religion, and women warriors. Montreal [Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. Print.

Chen, Fan Pen Li, and Bradford Clark. “A Survey of Puppetry in China (Summers 2008-2009).” Asian Theatre Journal 27.2 (2010): 333-365. Print.

Cohen, Alvin. “Documentation Relating to the Origins of the Chinese Shadow Puppet Theater  .” Asia Major 13.1 (2000): 83-108. Print.

Kronthal, Lisa. “Conservation of Chinese Shadow Figures: Investigations into their Manufacture, Storage, and Treatment.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 40.1 (2001): 1-14. Print.

Laufer, Berthold. Oriental theatricals. Chicago: [Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago], 1923. Print.

Liu, Jilin. Chinese shadow puppet plays. Beijing: Morning Glory Publishers, 1988. Print.

March, Benjamin, and Paul McPharlin. Chinese shadow figure plays and their making,. Detroit: Inland Press, 1938. Print.

Menzies, Grant. Shadow woman: the extraordinary career of Pauline Benton. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. Print.

Pimpaneau, Jacques.  Shadow figures of Asia from the collection of Pauline Benton. Saint Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Museum of Art, 1970. Print.

Swiderski, Richard M. . “The Aesthetics of a Contemporary Chinese Shadow Theatre.” Asian Folklore Studies 43.2 (1984): 261-273. Print.

Wimsatt, Genevieve. Chinese shadow shows,. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936. Print.!

Head Block

It’s been awhile since I started my initial search of all things Chinese shadow puppetry.  In 2008, I stumbled onto the subject and wanted to know more, much more.  And, like most people do when they want to know more, I went to the internet first.

After some intense google-ing, I found almost nothing, save some short introductory paragraphs and some low-resolution photos.  I momentarily assumed that this lack of information on the web was somehow a direct indication of the art form’s activity in China.  I couldn’t tell for sure, so I kept looking.

I finally found my first contact with an actual shadow puppet troupe in China through a string of connections (one of whom is now my fiancé) and even with my conversational Chinese abilities, it was another battle of logistics to get a hold of them, tell them what I wanted, raise the money to go there and actually find them in the countryside of China.

Throughout the interim five years and extended fieldwork, I have repeatedly found that this chasm between curiosity and concrete information stops most people from following through on that initial interest and I know from my fieldwork that Chinese shadow puppetry needs awareness and curiosity at this very moment more than ever.

Which brings me to my happy news:  after years as an idea, generous funding from The Walter and Mary Warpeha Family, The Chinese Heritage Foundation and the US-China Peoples Friendship Association of Minnesota and a good deal of time sitting in front a my computer – I bring you…

The first ever comprehensive Chinese shadow puppet website in English!

It is my great, if idealistic hope, that this website can be the conduit between all that curiosity and concrete information.  It is structured to grow and expand over the coming years and will evolve to fit the growing needs of those who use it.

Please, please, please share this website with reckless abandon.  Throw the Do-It-Yourself section to teachers and your children/cousins/nieces/nephews, use the handmade vs. machine made section when you go to China and want to buy shadow puppets, use the aesthetics section for all your visual inspirations, check in with the blog (which will be overlap with this one a bit, but be more directed towards events/happenings) and most of all, meet the artists that are working so tirelessly to keep the art form alive.  (If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve met them already!)

As always, I solicit your feedback in hopes of improving it wherever possible.

Thanks you, as always, for reading and may the shadows be with you!

History Repeats Itself

This past year has been an incredible mash-up of personal and professional adventures.  I’ve been able to return to China twice (a record for me) and also appreciate home more than ever.  And even though my stays at home leave me longing for the shadow puppet trail, I’ve also been able to do a different kind of searching here in America.

As part of my continued research stateside, I’ve come into contact with a surprising number of amazing scholars, students, enthusiasts and cheerleaders for the work – egging me on and keeping me going.

A few days after I landed back on US soil in December 2011, I was gifted a present in my inbox.  One Grant Hayter-Menzies, a biographer living in the west of Canada, had found me through my blog and asked if we could chat as he was in the midst of finishing a biography about Pauline Benton.  Pauline Benton, hmmm.  My mind ticked back through my dusty Rolodex of names – and – oh Yes.  I knew about her Chinese shadow puppet collection – now housed with the Chinese Theatre Works company in New York – and a few tidbits about her life, but the details were fuzzy.

We started a correspondence, Grant and I, and after an interview, chats via phone and email, I was given the opportunity to read his manuscript before it’s officially published through McGill-Queens University Press.  I can’t tell you what a dream it was to read, both for content and also for its writing.


Pauline Benton was an American Woman from Kansas, born just before the turn of last century.  She fell in love with puppetry in 1923 when she encountered her first shadow puppet performance in the courtyard of her Aunt Emma, who was then teaching in Beijing.   From there, she dedicated her life to become its lone steward in the states – the first female puppet master in the west and a collector, collaborator and creator of shadow puppet shows in her own right.  Her company, The Red Gate Shadow Players, were ambassadors for both the Chinese people and their incredible folk artistry during an ever-changing relationship to the states.

What Grant does so well with all his beautifully researched facts is make it, her and shadow puppetry, come to life.  He places her amazing story within such a rich context that you can’t help but be transported.   He takes you to Beijing in the 1920s, with all its chaos and tumult.  You also get to travel to New York in the early part of the century and around the country as a fledgling Chinese shadow puppet troupe tries to make a name for themselves despite the obvious obstacles.   Between performances at the White House for the Roosevelts and the seedy streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, you can feel the determination and dedication of Pauline and her troupe mates.

Of all the historical books I’ve read on shadow puppetry, this is the one I will reread over and over again – if not for pleasure, then for encouragement.  To know of a woman doing much the same work nearly 80 years earlier makes me feel comforted, supported.  I’ve got company on the puppet trail.   Somehow, without even knowing much about her, I seemed to have traced much the same path and even drawn many of the same conclusions on my own.  We seem to be kindred spirits, only separated by time.   Now, I simply have to live up to the rest of the trail she blazed for a Shadow Woman.

The story is echoing a theme in my recent musings of the past years of fieldwork, driving home the fact and fear of knowing that the stories we carry die with us if we don’t share them.  Whose responsibility is it to share these?  The teller or the listener?  As I finished the Epilogue, I had a moment of panic followed quickly by gratitude.  I can already tell this story, this work, will continue to impact me for many years to come – and to think it could have so easily remained buried and eventually lost forever but for another story hunter who saw its quiet potential.

This is a book for anyone who recognizes the inherent curse and blessing in a passion you can’t ignore.

I will certainly post the book’s release on the blog!

Thanks for reading~

Shadow Woman, The Extraodinary Career of Pauline Benton by Grant Hayter-Menzies.  Due out in Fall 2013 from McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal.  Press release below.

Hayter-Menzies PR

Visit Grant’s other works here at:

Information on the Pauline Benton collection at Chinese Theatre Works:

The Way We See It

I’ve been back home for over two months now.  And while I feel a longing for the shadow puppet trail, I’ve also been able to do a different kind of searching here in America.  It’s calmed my anxiety about the trail running cold or me losing my steam.  This time of processing and pondering is necessary to get to a more fulfilling continuation of the work.

Diving further into historical research while simultaneously building new work for the shadow theatre with my Chinese shadow training, has gotten me caught in some in some swirls of cyclical discovery and impossible intersections.   Sometimes, there is no way to gracefully integrate the old with the new.  Sometimes, it happens naturally.

My fascination with Chinese shadow puppetry has as much to do with what is presented as how it is presented.

The traditional countryside performances are the center of community celebrations and usually took place from sundown to sunup.

The crowd demographic changes throughout the night; the elderly were the last ones standing at 4am.  The stage is carted in by donkey, usually a bundle of long bamboo sticks or skinny tree trunks that are strung together to create a surprisingly sturdy screen for 6 or 7 troupe members and can be viewed from 360 degrees.

When I saw my first performance, I greedily sat myself in front and center in what I thought was the best seat in the house.

Once the music started and the puppets were underway, it became clear that I was operating under a very Western understanding of ‘best seat in the house’.  The areas where you could watch the puppet show from backstage were being vied for like Justin Bieber’s autograph.  My moment of embarrassment was cut short by my desire to get back there.

To watch a shadow show from behind the screen!  It was better than Noises Off.  It was even better than finding out who that man behind the curtain was in Wizard of Oz. 

This was the most important element I wanted to incorporate in my work when I returned to the states; the simple experience of destroying the fourth wall and presenting the entire process of performance as the show itself.  Not a promenade show, not a show in-the-round, but a show in which all aspects of creating the performance are stage worthy and just as entertaining as what’s going on in the ‘front.’

While doing more historical reading this last month, I learned that in some regions, viewing traditional Chinese shadow puppet plays from the back wasn’t always encouraged.  There was a time when the masters didn’t want their secrets exposed – to keep the magic intact.  But recently, some had come to believe that the back had opened up to compete with other forms of entertainment.   So funny – I had assumed without questions that the way I was viewing it now was the way it has always been viewed.  I had forgotten all my other research about the evolutionary nature of a folk art – the change necessary for survival.  But, it also reminded me that change isn’t always for the worse.  At least, in my opinion.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, when the audience was lagging due to competing forms of entertainment, some masters came to believe the same things I do now – which is the beauty of live performance is making magic within the limitations: invisible budgets, bad acoustics, gravity, etc.  And perhaps there is also magic inherent in the cogs that make that magic happen.  To expose those cogs is to embrace and celebrate these limitations, making them precious and valued again.

Thanks for reading~

The Turtle and Crane Phenomenon

In 2008, when I first went to China to study with a traditional shadow puppet troupe, I had a very narrow view of the form.   I only studied in one region and one troupe.

In 2011, I visited numerous troupes in nine provinces.  Needless to say, I had to reassess some previous assumptions.

Within my first few months of 2011, I became familiar with the Beijing/Hebei and Xi’an areas.  And within just a few months, I started to see a very strange trend – one that I wouldn’t fully understand until the end of my trip.

Both the Longzaitian troupe in Beijing, the Yutian troupe in Xi’an and the Shaanxi Provincial Theatre had a show entitled Turtle and Crane.  It’s a simple, modern show  with colorful animal protagonists and some perfect lilies bordering a perfectly bucolic pond.  An even cute and catchier score accompanies a short, 10-minute wander into this cute story.  But, even stranger, the puppets were nearly identical – and I couldn’t be certain, but the music sounded the same as well.

Longzaitian Troupe, Beijing China

Tengchong Shadow Puppet Troupe, Yunnan China

During my third viewing of the show in Xi’an, I naïvely asked how each troupe had come by the story.  I was always met with an elusive answer.  “Do you like it?” or “We’ve done this one for 15 years”.   Hmmm.  Still, I chalked it up to coincidence or a contained case of the ‘copies’.  But, throughout the year, I saw this same performance in nearly all provinces and nearly every troupe – including the more remote cities of Tengchong, Yunnan and Yunmeng, Hubei. S eriously: identical story, scenery, puppets and music.

In December, towards the end of my Fulbright year, I went to the Cui museum in Beijing and asked Cui Yongping about the Turtle and Crane flyer he had posted to the wall in German.  “That’s the first show we took to Germany in the 1980s”.   This was the first time I realized that the piece might have historical significance.

It wasn’t until I was reading a shadow puppet history book, from China, that I ran across a paragraph that explains Turtle and Crane as the first ‘National’ shadow production of China.

Funded as a government initiative, Turtle and Crane was created by an intellectual named Zhai Yi, in collaboration with two shadow puppet artists, in 1952 just after the formation of new China.  On the surface, it was simply an attempt to update the folk art form, but deep down it was meant to pacify what could have otherwise been a tool for subversion.

Of course, the shadow troupes of the time took it up with open arms, not wanting to challenge the new status quo.  It spread like wildfire.

Government officials were suspicious of traditional shadow puppetry because of its grassroots origins and its widespread popularity throughout the mainland.  Shows made by and for the people meant messages they couldn’t control.  At the time of the Communist revolution, and later the Cultural Revolution, troupes were forbidden to perform and most were forced to destroy their inherited trunks of shadow puppetry.  In some regions, a single troupe was allowed to continue – as long as they took their directives from the government.  Turtle and Crane was just the beginning.

Tai’an Shadow Puppetry Troupe, Shandong China

Master Qin, Hubei China

Some argue that shadow puppetry in China has continued through the mid-century but I consider this post-revolution wave a complete break.  To see a traditional show compared with a show like Turtle and Crane, I think you’d agree.

I believe in the need for art to evolve along with the people who create it, nothing is truly traditional as it’s always changing, but evolution indicates a continuum.   These new shows aren’t made by the community or artists who they are presented to, they have no regional relevance to their constituents and are so universal and pacified as to render them meaningless.   And this directive was an immediate, inorganic shift inspired by the country’s regime change.

After China opened back up in the 1980s, traditional troupes tried to pick up where they left off in the 1950s, only to find their shows about emperors and the peasant class had no place in the new China.  This break, coupled with urbanization and the digital era, has left traditional shadow puppetry floundering.   With no funding and no audiences, troupes have polarized to extremes.  Those troupes that were ‘government sponsored’ during the revolution continue to make shadow puppetry along the lines of Turtle and Crane to appeal to the modern audience, while troupes that were banned are trying to eek out a living performing the shows from way back when to an ever dwindling audience.

No one, save a few small projects here and there, has the time, money, or means to start a deliberate movement to bring the traditional form into the modern age.    Right now, it’s either or.

As I process through my year and how I want to proceed forward with my research and practice, this desire to foster a more organic evolution has become louder than others (in tandem with my desire to preserve the traditional puppet making methods).   But, as a foreigner, can I be the one to push this agenda?  I have spoken with a few of my masters on the issue and they are for it.  They’ve encouraged me to use whatever elements I’ve gleaned from their teachings and make it my own, fuse it, merge it, mash it and present it to a new audience.

Perhaps in these times of imminent extinction, the need for continuation should trump my worries of being inauthentic.   Still, I hope to proceed with a healthy dose of awareness mixed with urgency.

Thanks for reading~

Lost and Found

Even after nine months of living here, I’m still amazed at how big China is. The land, the people, the history, the stories, the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics – all of it is China big. It’s on a whole other scale from what we’re used to. And it’s even more amazing then, when in this land of huge, you can find something so small.

I’d heard about the Cui Shadow Puppet Museum the way most of us did. In December 2010, the New York Times published an article featuring the small shadow puppet museum in the outskirts of Beijing. A few of my friends and colleagues sent it to me and I read with eager delight. (Click here to read the original article)

Upon arrival in Beijing, I asked a few of my teachers about the museum. One teacher told me they were moving, another told me it was too far away and yet another had never heard of it. I tried to seek a working phone number from the internet or other contacts, but to no avail.

Summer came around and I returned to Beijing but I still didn’t go. I had no more information than I did in the spring and I was busy. I left for the fall without thinking twice about it.

During my latest trip in Hubei, my master asked where I was headed after my visit with him. “Beijing”, I said. “Beijing? Have you been to the Cui Museum?” He asked. I explained my hesitancy. His son piped up and told me they had returned in July and would be around until next spring

Armed with the knowledge that they were actually there, I decided to give it a go when I returned to Beijing. On my first free day, I headed out on the subway with just an address in hand (I still hadn’t found a working phone number) and headed to the closest ‘Golden Bridge Park’ – which wasn’t close at all. As addresses often go in China, it wasn’t the right one. Two more hours of subway riding and I had at least arrived in the right vicinity. The address says Beijing, but it’s not the Beijing you and I know. It’s so far southeast of the city that you actually have to get off the city line and transfer to an extension line. It’s a full 80 minutes from the city center. As I finally ended my eternal subway ride, I stepped out into the great unknown of a Beijing suburb.

I wandered to the first bus stop heading south. Already waiting on the dusty meridian was a curly haired foreigner. For a few seconds, I wondered if she was lost. Then it occurred to me we might just be headed to the same place. I caught her eye and asked her where she was headed. “To the shadow puppet museum”. “Me too!” I said, “what brings you there?” “I’m writing a paper”. Call it instinct, hope or just dumb luck, but I had to ask “what’s your name?” She looked at me with a little apprehension and answered “Beatriz”. Of course, she was. Beatriz had emailed me a while back; she was working on a research paper about shadow puppetry on her year abroad from Spain and had been following my blog, but as it was now blocked by China’s firewall she had contacted me directly. We had never met face to face.

It was one of those strange moments that you can’t decipher whether it’s fantastically extraordinary or just plain obvious. Two people after the same small thing, no matter how far they’ve come, are bound to bump into each other at some point. The fact that it was this random afternoon, at the very outskirts of China’s capitol, at a no name dusty bus stop, made it feel extraordinary.

We rode together and found our way to the very tucked away Cui Shadow Puppet Museum. It resides on the first floor of a plain looking apartment building in a plain looking apartment complex. If you don’t speak Chinese, I wouldn’t recommend trying to find this place on your own.

When we arrived, I explained who I was and how Beatriz and I ended up here. After a short chat, Mr. Cui took us around the museum himself. He and his wife have purchased all three apartments on the first floor of their building and converted two into a small, cramped and chaotic place to display their collection. After walking through the rooms by the numbered order, I had still failed to see any sort of organization. The cases and rooms are not divided by region or time period or by shows. Sporadic bulletin boards are bursting with newspaper clippings, posters and pamphlets from items they’ve collected over the years and the skeleton of the apartments are still visible under all the puppetry.

It’s a bit of information overload, but that’s part of its charm. While other collections may have better pieces and display them in a more cohesive way, this museum almost feels like shadow puppetry itself: resourceful, cluttered and passionate.

But the clutter may not last. The couple plans to spend much of next year back in America, both with their son in New York and at the Indiana Children’s Museum, who has hired them in a long-term arrangement. When they’re gone, their museum remains closed.

Part of me is glad to see Chinese shadow puppetry making its way west towards America, but much of me is sad that the Cui’s had to look for opportunities away from home. Hopefully, this is just a new chapter in Chinese shadow puppetrys evolution for survival. Hopefully, they’ll find their new home and hosts welcoming.

Thanks for reading~

{My photos from this trip are few, as photography inside the museum is prohibited}

Directions on how to get to the Cui Shadow Puppet Museum(open this year until end of December 2011)

Name: 北京皮影艺术博物馆

Beijing Piying Yishu Bowuguan

Beijing Shadow Puppet Arts Museum

Curators: Mr. Cui (Cui Yongping) and Mrs. Cui (Wang Shuqing)

Address: 北京通州马驹桥, 金桥花园, 16

Beijing, Tongzhou Majuqiao, Jinqiao Huayuan, Number 16

Beijing City, Tongzhou District, Maju Bridge, Jinqiao Garden Complex, Building 16

Museum Phone # {86}010-60502692

Mobile Phone # 13161334683

Email: (not sure how often they check this)


Take Beijing Subway Line 5 heading south towards Songjiazhuang

Transfer at Songjiazhuang 宋家庄(last stop) to the Yizhuang亦庄 Line

Get off the Yizhuang 亦庄 line at the Tongji Nanlu 同济南路 stop

From there, hail a taxi (about 15 yuan) to the address above

Or take bus 542 or 821 to the Majuqiao #1 stop 马驹桥一号桥

The museum is in a building complex on the EAST side ofXihou Jie 西后街

You’ll have to ask (either with words or with a print out of the information above) around until someone knows how to direct you. There are no signs on the outside of the building complex.

Happy hunting~