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. Like most legends, it lends itself to more fiction than fact.
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, the UNESCO Intangible Culture Heritage Project, museums, academia and tourism. With my research, I continue to make contact with puppet masters, scholars, enthusiasts to hear what they have to say about its past, present and future. Of course, I post what I find here…for you.