The shadow show or leather silhouette play is a type ofdrama which has its root in China.
Legend has it that Emperor Wudi(156-87BC) of the Western Han dynasty was depressed with the death of his favourite concubine Lady Li. To help him get over the sadness, an occultist sculptured a wodden figure in the likeness of the lady and projected its shadow on a curtain for the emperor to see,bringing him consolation with the belief that the shadow was her spirit. This has been thought to be the beginning of the shadow show.
Today’s shadow puppets are made of leather instead of wood for the simple reason that leather is much lighter ,easier to manipulate and carry around. The process for making the puppets is as follows: sheep or donkey skin with hair removed is cleanned and treated chemically to become thin enough to be translucent. Coated with tung oil and dried,it is carved into various parts of dramatic figures. The trunk,head and limbs of a puppet are separetly carved but joined together by thread so that each part may be manipulated by operator to simulate human movements. The leather puppets are painted with various colors to show their different qualities-kind or wicked, beautiful or ugly.
During the performance,the “actors” are held close to a white curtain with their coloured shadows cast on it by a strong light from behind. Moved by guiding sticks,they play the roles,accompanies by music,with their parts or singing done by the operators. The plays can be quite dramatic and ,when it comes to fairy tales or kongfu stories, the “ actors” may be made to ride on clouds or perform unusual feats,to the great enjoyment of the audience,especially children.
The shadow show became quite popular as early as the Song Dynasty(960-1279) when holidays were marked by the presentation of many shadow plays. During the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644),there were 40 to 50 shadow show troupes in the city of Beijing alone.
In the 13th century the shadow show became a regular recreatioin in the barracks of the Mongolian troops. It was spread by the conquering Mongols to distant countries like Persia,Arabia and Turkey. Later, it was introduced to Southeastern Asian Countries, too
The show began to spring to Europe in the mid-18th century,when French missionaries to China took it back to France in 1767 and put on performances in Paris and Marseilles, causing quite a stir.
Today, when the motion picture and television have become wide spread throughout the world,foreign tourists in China are still keen to see a performance of this ancient dramatic art
Shadow puppets are available from certain shops as art souvenirs of the country.