Stories from the Hearth

Chinese Shadow Puppets - TWB S2 E3

Episode Summary

By flickering candlelight, Chinese storytellers have been telling tales with exquisite, colourful shadow puppets for over two-thousand years. Surviving war, famine, regime changes and revolutions, this is one of the world's oldest and most intricate storytelling traditions. I look at the music, singing, and puppetry of the artform, the training its mastery requires, why it has a decentralized, anarchist structure, how it survived its tumultuous history, and what a future version of Chinese shadow puppetry might look like.

Episode Notes

By flickering candlelight, Chinese storytellers have been telling tales with exquisite, colourful shadow puppets for over two-thousand years. Surviving war, famine, regime changes and revolutions, this is one of the world's oldest and most intricate storytelling traditions. I look at the music, singing, and puppetry of the artform, the training its mastery requires, why it has a decentralized, anarchist structure, how it survived its tumultuous history, and what a future version of Chinese shadow puppetry might look like.

Welcome to The Wandering Bard, a bonus historical series on Stories from the Hearth examining the history of storytelling. This month’s episode is the third in a season asking "Who are the storytellers?" Today we examine the shadow puppeteers of ancient and modern China.

The next story episode from Stories from the Hearth is out on 26th September. Next month's Wandering Bard bonus episode will take a look at the Arabic rap-battles of Lebanon called Zajal.

The aim of Stories from the Hearth is to rekindle its listeners' love for the ancient art of storytelling (and story-listening), and to bring some small escapism to the frantic energies of the modern world.

Support the podcast from just £2 ($3) on Patreon, and get early access, exclusive content, bonus story-episodes, in-episode shout-outs, and the chance to become part of a wider community. Simply click here: https://www.patreon.com/storiesfromthehearthpodcast

Today's sources: chineseshadowpuppetry.com, China Puppet and Shadow Art Society, UNESCO, travelchinaguide.com, Google Arts & Culture

Video links! - 
Traditional Chinese Shadow Puppet Show, Bazhong, China
Ballerina - Chinese Shadow Puppetry
Clever Monkeys - Chinese Shadow Puppetry
Puppet Master Liu Laoshi Shows Off His Skills

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Episode Transcription

Welcome to The Wandering Bard, a bonus historical and educational series on Stories from the Hearth, examining the history of storytelling and the people behind it. This is episode three in our most recent season, asking Who are the storytellers?, and today’s answer is: the shadow puppet masters of Ancient and Modern China.

If you’re enjoying Stories from the Hearth, please rate and review it on whatever podcast platform you use, tell your friends about it, and consider joining me on Patreon, where you can gain access to behind-the-scenes content, monthly bonus episodes, shout-outs, one-on-one chats with me, copies of every story, personal commissions and much more. Tiers start at just £2, or $3. As always, I’ll be posting a few images and clips pertaining to this month’s Wandering Bard episode on Twitter, and Instagram, and a full behind-the-scenes breakdown for my patrons on Patreon.

I want you to imagine yourself as an emperor of Ancient China, two-thousand years ago; Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, to be precise. You live in luxury, surrounded by wealth and wonders; but something’s missing. Your beloved wife, Li, has died. She was taken from you tragically young, by an illness, and ever since she died you have been in mourning. Then, just this morning, one of your royal courtiers, an alchemist called Shao Weng came to you. He told you that he could summon Li’s spirit for you, and for one night only you would be reunited. What do you say to this? Of course, you are beside yourself with joy, trepidation, fear, and curiosity. As always, love wins out, and you tell Shao Weng to go ahead. That night, lying in your bed, the screen door at the end of your room is suddenly lit from behind by a candle, and before you know what’s happening, you see your deceased wife Li brought back to life. Her features, her dress, her hair, her smile, all are there in intricate detail, flickering in the candle light just behind the paper door. You want to cry out, to run to her, but the alchemist Shao Weng has instructed you that you must not approach her, or her spirit will fly away. Overwhelmed to tears, you write your wife Li a love poem as she disappears, and the candle burns out. 

Was that you?
I stood up to look at you,
Yet you never came.

Little did you know, the alchemist had not summoned Li’s spirit at all, but had carved her likeness as a puppet, made from paper and rich in colour, which he manipulated to move like Li had in life, behind the Emperor’s screen. 

This story was recorded in the Book of Han, an official record of the Han dynasty which ruled over much of modern day China and Vietnam from 202BCE to 220CE. According to the record, this was the first ever use of shadow puppetry in China, and sparked the beginning of a storytelling tradition which is still alive today, over two-thousand years later.

Not only is Chinese shadow puppetry one of the oldest surviving forms of storytelling, but it is also without doubt one of the most intricate and skilful storytelling arts I’ve ever come across. Predating modern theatre and cinema, Chinese shadow puppetry utilizes many of the same techniques which make drama and film so immersive: sound design, set design, voice acting and character performance. 

As always in The Wandering Bard, we’re going to take a whistle-stop tour through the history of this storytelling artform, its style and form, cultural importance, and finally a look at what the future might hold for it. But first, a quick introduction to the artform itself. I’m going to be putting pictures up on my Instagram, Twitter and Patreon, as well as links to videos of some traditional performances, and I highly recommend you go and take a look. I am absolutely certain that you, like I, will be simply blown away by the stunning level of detail which goes into the carving and colouring of each puppet, as well as the incredible degree of expertise with which the puppets are manipulated, and with which the accompanying music is performed.

In short, Chinese shadow puppetry is a form of theatre in which colourful silhouette figures perform traditional and modern plays, fairy-tales, fables, and social commentary against a back-lit cloth screen, all of which is accompanied by music and singing. Troupes of puppeteers typically consist of between five and seven members, with one puppet master controlling all of the puppets (sometimes several in each hand at once!), one singer performing all of the character roles in song, including the narration, and three to five musicians who play several instruments at once, with hands, feet, and mouths. To watch a performance of Chinese shadow puppetry is a truly unique experience. The fluidity of the puppets’ movements is so characterful and lifelike it seems as if they truly have come to life, as Emperor Wu believed when he saw the puppet of his wife Li. The singing is enchanting, and may range from falsetto to bass with just one voice, whilst the music is sometimes soft and heart-wrenching, oftentimes chaotic, wild, and cacophonous. (As I say, I’ll post some video links on my social media.) 

The stories told by the shadow puppeteers of China serve to entertain, but more than that, they preserve the historical record and comment upon the current social climate, promote community and cultural values, educate the youth, and uphold religious rites. As a true folk art, Chinese shadow puppetry is grassroots through and through, and has, thanks to its decentralized structure, managed to survive for two-thousand years, through war, famine, the rise and fall of innumerable empires, and even the disastrous Cultural Revolution of Communist China.

Now, let’s take a look at the aesthetic style, the training and the practice of Ancient Chinese shadow puppetry.

As discussed at the start of the episode, Chinese shadow puppetry had its roots in royalty, and the aristocracy of China’s empires. In its heyday, during the Tang and Song dynasties of the 7th-10th and 10th-13th centuries, every aristocrat, prince and emperor had to have their own personal troupe of shadow puppeteers. This was both a status symbol, and a practicality, seeing as it was common practice to greet domestic and foreign dignitaries with a performance of shadow puppetry.

Moreover, shadow puppetry was essential to the success and spread of Buddhism in China. Since the teachings of the Buddha were complex and hard for the uneducated population to grasp, Buddhists used shadow puppetry to tell the story of the Buddha, and to translate his teachings into shadow play. 

In simpler terms, the shadow puppetry of Ancient China was at the very heart of not only imperial power, but the nation’s religion. 

And yet, despite its high profile origins, shadow puppetry quickly became a people’s art form. To quote Annie Katsura Rollins, who has proved an invaluable source for today’s episode: “[Shadow puppetry’s] simplicity, portability and night-time performances were perfectly suited for the working classes. Farmers and labourers took up puppeteering, singing, musical instruments and storytelling after the sun went down, to create a tradition that became the heart of their communities… Only the most popular troupes made their entire living [like this]… while most continued to work as farmers during the day and perform for their villages at night.” At the height of the artform’s popularity, there was an abundance of travelling puppetry troupes, who would move from village to village, town to town, giving performances in the streets in exchange for donations, food, or lodging.

In any given performance, the shadow puppeteers of Ancient China may have used anywhere from tens to hundreds of puppets and set-design pieces. These puppets were made from thin, semi-transparent leather (typically from donkeys, cows, or sheep), with individual limbs and expressive elements like eyebrows, moustaches and fingers joined together by thread, so that each could be individually manipulated. Chinese shadow puppets are so intricate, in fact, that they can only be carved by masters of the art. Just a single puppet may require as many as twenty-four layers of leather, and more than three-thousand cuts. The intricacy of the patterns, dress, facial expressions and linework is truly breath-taking. After cutting and layering the leather to form the figures, they are extensively dyed, so that when the light shines on them from behind, they are projected onto the cloth screen in stark, rich, vibrant colour. The faces and costumes of the puppets are vivid and humorous. The flowery colour, the elegant sculpting and smooth lines of their construction make them not simply props, but art.

The craftsmanship behind shadow puppets requires specialised tools and the knowledge of expert craftspeople. Traditionally, these craftspeople were men who had learned the craft from their fathers in sworn secrecy, and who would in time pass on this knowledge and expertise to their own sons. Recently, outsiders have entered the crafting tradition, provided that they can find a son-less master who is willing to break with tradition. Whilst no set apprenticeship for puppet making ever existed in this strictly grassroots artform, mastery of the art would have taken at least fifteen years. 

The actual controlling of the puppets behind the screen must require similarly intense training, since the puppet master generally has to operate several puppets on each hand at once, and up to fifteen threads with just ten fingers. As an example of how lifelike and complex the movements of these flat, 2D puppets can be, in one play a woman sits at a mirror, combing individual strands of hair with her comb, all the while her mirror-reflection (played by another puppet) matches her actions perfectly. In yet another play, a man sucks on his tobacco pipe, and blows smoke rings which widen and dissipate into the night, just as they would if blown in real life.

One of the things I found most fascinating about the creation and control of the puppets was that they were designed in keeping with local community aesthetics. Audiences could tell everything they needed to know about a figure at first glance, just by its mask, colours, and posture. Typically, in Chinese shadow puppetry, a red mask represents dignity and virtue, a black mask loyalty and faith, whilst a white mask signifies treachery, cunning, and deceit. Similarly, a positive figure, like the story’s hero, will have long narrow eyes, a small mouth, and a straight nose, whilst a negative figure like the antagonist is portrayed with small eyes, a protruding forehead, and a sagging mouth. Of course, these character signifiers are not limited to just good and bad. A clown, or character providing comic relief, would have big circles around his eyes, indicating to the audience that laughter was on the way. All of this – good characters being good looking, bad characters being ugly – was in keeping with the popular perception of good and bad people in everyday Chinese life.

Of course, the stories which Chinese shadow puppetry tells would not be complete without the musical accompaniment. In fact, originally the shadow puppets were the accompaniment, and the music the main attraction. Hence the saying in China: “Are you going to hear a show?” Over time, however, interest in the puppetry grew, and the music became a secondary attraction. Still, the music is extraordinarily complex, and many of the singing techniques and instrumental playing techniques associated with the shows are unique to individual communities, and have not evolved anywhere else in the world. These skills and techniques, just as much as the carving and manipulation of the puppets, are treasured secrets passed down from generation to generation. 

Whilst the singer told the story with often improvised words, imitating the character voices of all the figures on display and performing the role of narrator from memory, the musicians behind him would be setting the tone and mood of the scene on a variety of instruments, which each member may play several of at once, including percussion instruments often tied to the feet or played by hand, the banhu fiddle, erhu string instrument, the suona horn, and the yu: a free standing reed wind instrument. These instruments were all completely new to me, quite incredible to look at and to hear played. I’ll put pictures of them up on my Patreon.

As for the actual stories told through Chinese shadow puppetry – whilst there are the classics of Chinese mythology, including The White Snake Lady, and those including characters like the four ancient beauties, Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan, and Yang Guifei; or the Monkey King, Emperor Qin Shi Huang – it would be impossible to actually list a full catalogue of shadow puppet stories. This is because this storytelling tradition spanned the vast geography of China, and was performed by peasants for peasants. Thus, the stories told were often deeply personal to each individual community. 

The stories served a few specific purposes: recording local history, entertaining the crowd, commenting on the current social, political, and economic situation, and conducting religious (usually Buddhist) ceremonies. Puppetry was traditionally performed at any special occasion, including but not limited to festivals, weddings, funerals, births, annual folk ceremonies, and religious rituals. Furthermore, seeing as most peasants in China were illiterate up until the mid-1900s and the Communist Revolution, shadow puppetry was for nearly two thousand years the most effective and fastest means of spreading messages throughout a community and across the land.

Evidently, this was a storytelling tradition very similar to that of the Hula dancers and West African Griots, who I’ve talked about in previous episodes. It was one you had to devote yourself to for life, in order to hone your skill, memorise dozens of oral folktales and stories, develop your own artistic style, and make a living for yourself and your troupe.

Lastly, let’s take a brief look at the tumultuous past, present, and future of these most incredible storytellers.

Survival for Chinese shadow art has never been easy. In the two thousand years since its inception, it has had to survive wars and famine, regime changes and revolution. At times held in the highest regard by the Emperors of China themselves, whilst at others reviled, suspected, and feared, shadow puppetry has only survived through a constant willingness to adapt and re-invent itself.

During the Tang and Song dynasties of the Middle Ages, as we’ve touched on before, shadow puppetry was popular throughout China, making it one of the few folk artforms in history to transcend the country’s countless cultural and geographical barriers. At the same time, it propped up the Buddhist faith, enabling the religion to spread through this network of rural communities. Similarly, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the tradition was equally popular, spreading far and wide overseas. Shadow puppetry reached Egypt during the 15th and 16th centuries, and Turkey one hundred years later. During the 18th century, when Western Europe was in the thrall of China’s fantastic output of art and goods, the artform was finally introduced to France, Germany and Great Britain.

However, as seems to be a recurring theme in these episodes, there were times in China’s history when the people in power did not praise and promote the art of storytelling, but in fact feared and despised it. During the Yuan Dynasty of 1271CE to 1368, shadow puppetry was cruelly cracked down on and co-opted by the State for propaganda purposes. Then later, from 1796 to 1800, the government actually banned puppet shows, for fear that they would be used to help spread a peasant uprising which was occurring at that time. 

And then, of course, came the Communist Revolution, and the dreaded Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. With this, Chairman Mao was attempting to once and for all destroy all evidence of China’s cultural history, so that his ‘New China’ could begin again with a blank slate. It’s a tactic we see time and again throughout history, whether in the destruction of Catholic churches during the Protestant Reformation, the burning of books by the Nazis, the banning of books by the American public school system, or the Taliban bombing crusader Castles in Palestine and Syria. It is always devastating, and it benefits no one. Mao’s Communist government was suspicious and scared of shadow puppetry for the same reasons the Yuan imperial court and the later Qing dynasty had been: shadow puppetry was a grassroots, decentralized art form with religious ties, run by peasant farmers, and popular across the country. In short, stories written by the people for the people meant that there were messages out there the government couldn’t control. 

And so, the Communist Party banned shadow puppetry outright. In some regions, this meant that only government-approved troupes could perform, and then only government-approved stories. Whilst in other regions, it meant that centuries of recorded stories, delicately crafted puppets, and ancestral musical instruments were burned to ashes.

When the ban finally came to an end at the end of the Cultural Revolution, traditional troupes tried to pick up where they’d left off, only to find that their audience had completely changed, and survival in modern China was now incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Thankfully, today the Chinese government are making moves to preserve this incredible piece of national heritage. In 2011, shadow puppetry was included on the State-level List of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Chinese government, in collaboration with UNESCO. Now, play scripts are being preserved in museums, shows are being recorded, inheritance methods are collected alongside materials, props and instruments, and some of the communities practising shadow puppetry have been put on a conservation list. Children in modern day China are also being taught to engage with and learn the storytelling art of puppetry in class, from rural communities to youngsters growing up in bustling metropolises like Shanghai. 

Unfortunately, however, whilst shadow puppetry remains an important part of daily life in some small, rural communities, the artform has largely been reduced to serving the tourist industry, and as a gimmicky inclusion in traditional festivals and ceremonies. While many of the oldest generation in China can still appreciate the beauty of the stories told by flickering candlelight, for the young it may serve only as a novel inclusion on their Instagram feed. New laser-cut puppets have degraded and ruined the hand-cut puppet market, and today most puppet masters are left without apprentices to carry on their legacy. Without enough business to support their art, many masters are forced to retire for good.

The homogenisation of storytelling in the modern world, and the resultant loss of unimaginably-unique storytelling traditions is today a heart-wrenching fact of life, and it is a theme I’m sure will continue throughout the rest of this series of The Wandering Bard

At its heart, Chinese shadow puppetry is a folk art form. Which means that its performances are given to the community that it was created within, by members of that community, in a way which serves that community best, so that every member of the community is welcomed into the story. Let me ask you: when was the last time you can say you were a part of something like that?

But let’s not end on a sad note. Let’s instead go back in time, let’s allow our minds to wander, and let’s find ourselves once more in Ancient China. 

I want you to picture yourself as a villager, in a small hamlet clinging to the sides of a misty, conical mountain, overlooking the bubbling Yangtze River far below. It is evening, and as the first of the stars peak their heads through the clouds above, you watch the puppeteers set up their raised stage on rickety bamboo legs. Amidst the din of chatter and communal eating, the shadow troupe seem like poor, rugged people, sitting behind the cheap cloth of a badly made tent. But then, darkness falls, and the lamp is lit. Suddenly, the veil between this world and the world of magic is lifted, and before your very eyes, characters from your village’s history, from the legends and myths you grew up hearing, even emperors and their concubines, dance, fight, and act out their stories in vivid, fluid, colourful movements. The music soars, the drum beat pounds, the singer’s voice hovers, darts, skips and lulls, and for hours and hours into the dark night you and your neighbours watch on, laughing, crying, and learning…

Thank you for listening to The Wandering Bard, the bonus historical series from Stories from the Hearth. This month, we looked at the shadow puppetry of Ancient China, last month the Griots of West Africa. Tune in next month to learn all about the classic Arabic version of a slam-poet rap-battle: Zajal. Set your alarms for September 26th, when my next story episode will drop.

My sources for this episode include Annie Katsura Rollins writing at chineseshadowpuppetry.com, a documentary by the China Puppet and Shadow Art Society, courtesy of UNESCO, travelchinaguide.com, and The History of Chinese Shadow Art, writtenby Wu Jian’an for Google Arts & Culture. Many of the images I’ll be posting on my Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon are from the collections preserved at CAFA, The Central Academy of Fine Arts China. My pronunciations of Chinese-language words and names in this episode are most likely not-entirely correct, and for that I am sorry. I try my best!

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please rate and review the podcast on your podcast player, or even better: on iTunes or Apple Podcasts – that really helps me get more visibility. Share the podcast with your friends and family, and if you want to support this venture even more, then join me on Patreon. From just £2, you can get early access to every story episode, bonus monthly episodes and more, ensuring that Stories from the Hearth stays ad-free and up and running. 

Until next time, I’ve been Calum Bannerman, and you’ve been listening to The Wandering Bard on Stories from the Hearth.