Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Show — Magnificent Worlds Across Time Portrayed by Art of Fingertips
Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Shows are two ancient performing art in China, formed in the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) and popularized as prevalent entertainment means since then.
Different delicate puppets, accompanied by rich music, fascinating singing and dialogues, and masterful use of light and stage settings, tell great stories across time and space.
Definition and Difference Between Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Show
The performing puppets are the most important difference between these two folk art performances.
Shadow Puppetry, also called Shadow Play or Piying Xi, is the art of light and silhouette.
Shadow Puppet is the main performing puppet, which is made of paper or leather, with exquisite carving and coloring crafts.
Meanwhile, there is a system to show those figures' characteristics, genders, and occupations based on the shapes and colors of their faces, noses, eyes, and clothes.
A traditional shadow puppet has 24 moving joints, ensuring it can do all kinds of difficult movements.
On a translucent screen lightened by a simple light source, their silhouettes would walk, dance, fight, talk, and laugh to tell fascinating stories to the audiences.
Shadow Puppets with Different Shapes and Colors of Faces, Noses, Eyes, and Clothes.
Puppets on Puppet Show
Puppet Show, also named Mu'ou Xi, is the art of lifelike performers among fingertips.
Their performing puppets are three-dimensional and lifelike, usually made of wood, with exquisite hairstyles, headdresses, clothes, embroideries, ornaments, accessories, and advanced technics to make them move.
Delicate three-dimensional puppets must show under good light, and shadow puppets require only a light source on a translucent screen.
Therefore, in ancient times, many theatrical troupes would perform Puppet Shows in the daytime and Shadow Puppet Play at night.
Chinese Shadow Puppetry Performance Under Light.
Origin and History
These two main types of Chinese puppetry both originated in the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), thrived in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), and were popularized nationwide in the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279); however, their origins were quite different.
Origin of Puppet Show
Ceramics, grass, and wood-made human figurines are believed to be the predecessors of puppets, which were used as funerary objects to replace human sacrifice.
Later, in some folk customs, moveable and wood-made puppets were used to perform at funerals, entertain the deceased, or dispel evil spirits.
Till the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), developed techniques allowed people to make more exquisite puppets with delicate appearances and flexible movements, and their shows became popular performing art.
Since then, it has been played as a form of entertainment and on important festivals and occasions as ceremonial activities in some places.
Delicate Puppets, Photo by Luo Xiaoguang.
Origin of Shadow Puppetry
The earliest shadow art performance was documented in the Book of Han, written by Ban Gu (32 — 92).
Emperor Wudi (156 BC — 87 AD) was quite upset after Lady Li, one of his favorite concubines, passed away very young.
An official then used fabric and sticks to make a moveable shadow puppet that exactly looked like the silhouette of the beautiful Lady Li and performed it at night to the emperor.
Shadow Puppet of Beautiful Woman
This performance was quite real and comforting, relieved the emperor's grief, and spread to the civilians' world.
Shadow puppets are cheap to make, and the performing stage, which includes a simple light source, a semi-transparent screen, or scrim, is easy to obtain.
Therefore, shadow shows rapidly became popular entertainment and disseminated nationwide.
Shadow Puppet Army in Performace
Ideas and Designs
The shows can present magnificent worlds, from secular daily lives to mystical lands.
Puppet Characters Include:
Famous historical figures
Characters from folklore and legends
The Storytelling Includes:
Folklore and legends
Western fairy tales
Modern theme shows
Shadow Puppets in Performace "Journey to the West", One of the Most Classic Ancient Novels
Fascinating Legends and Crafts of Ancient Chinese Puppets
Nowadays, it is impossible to watch ancient shows for real; however, we still can glimpse their exceptional crafts from historical records and folklore.
Throughout history, many poets and scholars have described exquisite and lifelike puppets, as well as touching and unforgettable performances.
What's more, the genius mechanisms of some ancient puppets also had been described, which sounds quite impressive today.
According to ancient literature, a puppet could hold a wooden bowl and walk along the street to beg for money while simultaneously making sounds. Every day, thousands of people are amused or impressed by this puppet's talent and put money into its wooden bowl.
There were also a group of puppets in a fancy restaurant; one could pour wine and toast to customers, while the others could sing and play musical instruments.
Delicate Puppet Performing Traditional Opera, Photo by Tao Jie.
Common Types of Chinese Puppets
Unlike shadow puppets made of carved paper or leather and manipulated by rods on the back, puppets in Puppet Shows include many types.
Rod Puppets or Zhangtou Muou
Rod Puppets are puppets manipulated by three rods; usually, one controls the body, and two are attached to the arms.
Operators of Ancient Chinese rod puppets would hold the puppets overhead to play; hence, hollow wood or bamboo would be used to make puppet bodies to lighten the weights.
The heads of puppets are the most exquisite part, usually made of wood, applied with delicate makeup, with moveable eyes and mouths, and some also need to do beautiful hairstyling.
Sophisticated Costume and Headdresses of Puppets
Marionette Puppets or Tixian Muou
Marionette Puppets are controlled by some strings, usually from 5 to 30. These numbers of strings and delicate joints made marionette puppets quite flexible and could complete lots of complex movements.
Like Rod Puppets, Marionettes Puppets also have exquisitely carved heads, delicate makeup and hairstyles, and exquisite costumes.
Marionette Puppets Performing "Journey to the West", One of the Greatest Classics in Ancient China.
Hand Puppets or Budai Muou
Hand Puppets are performed using the performer's fingers, usually consisting of a head, two arms, and clothes.
Hand Puppets Performing Traditional Opera, Picture from Yujing Shijie.
Iron Wire Puppets or Tiezhi Muou
Iron Wire Puppets evolved out of Shadow Puppetry and used iron wires to manipulate the puppets to perform.
An Iron Wire Puppet would have a clay head, wooden feet, a wood or straw body, and paper hands.
Iron Wire Puppets Manipulated by Iron Wires on the Back, Picture from Yiwei Kehang.
Firework Puppets or Yaofa Muou
Several refined puppets dancing and performing on a tall bamboo pole (about 13 to 15 meters), accompanied by beautiful fireworks, is a traditional Firework Puppetry performance.
Firework Puppets would be moving and performing, driven by the setting off of fireworks, usually only playing at grand worship ceremonies and festivals.
Firework Puppets usually have delicately carved wood heads and bamboo-weaved bodies and wear refined clothes applied with fire-proof material.
Firework Puppets Performance in Taishun City
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