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Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Show — Magnificent Worlds Across Time Portrayed by Art of Fingertips

Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Show 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. 


The magnificent art world of the shows is quite comprehensive, including music, dance, painting, craft, martial art, performing art, ritual, costume, literature, philosophy, and folk custom. 

Chinese Shadow Puppetry
Shadow Puppets Figurines
Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Show

Definition and Difference Between Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Show


The most important difference between these two folk art performances is the performing puppets. 


Shadow Puppets


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. 

Shadow Puppets

Shadow Puppets

Meanwhile, there is a system to show those figures' characteristics and genders, and occupations, based on the shapes and colors of their faces, noses, eyes, and clothes. 


A traditional shadow puppet has 24 moving joints, which make sure 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.

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 in ancient China are three-dimensional and lifelike, usually made of wood, with exquisite hairstyles, headdresses, clothes, embroideries, ornaments, accessories, and advanced technics to make them move. 

Exquisite Puppets in The Puppet Show About Story of Chang'e and Houyi

Exquisite Puppets in The Show About Story of Chang'e and Houyi, Performed by Jiangsu Mu'ou Troupe.

Delicate three-dimensional puppets need to show with good lights, and shadow puppets perform require only a light source on a translucent screen. 


Therefore, in ancient times, many theatrical troupes would perform Puppet Show in the daytime, and Shadow Puppet Play at night. 

Shadow Puppetry Performance Under Light

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 the predecessors of puppets, which were used as funerary objects to replace human sacrifice. 

Jade Figurine of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC)

Jade Figurine of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Later, moveable and wood-made puppets were used to perform at funerals, to entertain the deceased ones, or dispel evil spirits in some folk customs. 


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, as well as on important festivals and occasions as ceremonial activities in some places. 

Delicate Chinese Puppets in Puppet Show

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 at a very young age.


An official then used fabric and sticks to make a moveable shadow puppet that exactly looks like the silhouette of the beautiful Lady Li, and performed it at night to the emperor. 

Shadow Puppet of Beautiful Woman

Shadow Puppet of Beautiful Woman

This performance was quite real and comforting, which 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, the shadow shows rapidly became popular entertainment and disseminated nationwide. 

Shadow Puppet Army in Shadow Puppetry Performace

Shadow Puppet Army in  Performace


Ideas and Designs


The worlds that the shows can present are magnificent, from secular daily lives to mystical lands. 


Puppet Characters Include: 

  • Ordinary people

  • Famous historical figures

  • Deities

  • Characters from folklores and legends

  • Mythical creatures 

Traditional Chinese Shadow Puppets

The Storytelling Include:

  • Historical events

  • Folklore and legends

  • Western fairy tales

  • Modern theme shows

Shadow Puppetry Performace "Journey to the West", One of the Most Classic Ancient Novels

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 not possible to watch ancient shows for real, however, we still can have a glimpse of their exceptional crafts from historical records and folklores. 


Throughout history, many poets and scholars had 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. 

Exquisite Puppet Wearing Traditional Clothes

According to ancient literature, a puppet could hold a wooden bowl and walk along the street to beg for money, while also making sounds at the same time. Every day, thousands of people would be 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 of them could pour wine and toast to customers, while the other two could sing and play musical instruments. 

Delicate Puppet Performing Traditional Opera

Delicate Puppet Performing Traditional Opera, Photo by Tao Jie. 


Common Types of Chinese Puppets


Unlike shadow puppets that are 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 refer to 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.

Rod Puppets in The Puppet Show About Story of Chang'e and Houyi

Rod Puppets in The Show About Chang'e and Houyi, by Jiangsu Mu'ou Troupe in Puppet Theater.

The heads of puppets are the most exquisite part, which are 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

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 can complete lots of difficult movements.

Same as Rod Puppets, Marionettes Puppets also have exquisitely carved heads with delicate makeups and hairstyles, as well as exquisite costumes. 

Marionette Puppets or Tixian Muou Performing

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

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, wood or straw body, and paper hands.

Iron Wire Puppets Manipulated by Iron Wires on the Back

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 performance named Firework Puppetry. 

Firework Puppets would be moving and performing driven by setting off of fireworks, usually only playing on grand worship ceremonies and festivals.

Firework Puppets usually have delicately carved wood heads and bamboo-weaved bodies, and wear refined clothes that have been applied with fire-proof material.  

Firework Puppets Performance in Taishun City

Firework Puppets Performance in Taishun City 

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