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Shadow Puppetry: the Oldest Motion Picture Storytelling

May 17, 2009

China’s shadow puppetry is the “forerunner of film.” — French film historian Georges Sadoul, General History of the Cinema (Histoire générale du cinéma)

History: more than 2000 years old

Originated in China more than 2000 years ago in Qin Dynasty, shadow puppetry is known to be the oldest motion picture storytelling.皮影-锦里

Once upon a time in Han dynasty, Emperor Wu was very unhappy when his mostly loved princess consort passed away. One of the most talented shadow puppetry performer went to the royal palace and played a dedicate shadow puppetry for him.

The shadow of the princess consort on the screen was so real and the performance was so touching that Emperor Wu believed his lover was revived. He was very happy about this. With his support, shadow puppetry soon became popular around China, and thrived into a rich folk art.

Spread around the world

Shadow puppetry properties are very portable, and a shadow puppetry troupe doesn’t require a large supporting crew. So it’s the best entertaining option for military. For a long history, shadow puppetry had been the only and best entertainment to maintain the moral of soldiers during long depressing military life.

For this reason, shadow puppetry was spread to other parts of world with military during the conflicts between civilizations, especially with the army of Mongolian Conqueror Genghis Khan as well as commercial merchants and Evangelicals through the sea routes and the Silk Way.

Since 13th century, shadow puppetry was gradually introduced to other countries such as Persian Empire, Arabian area, Turkey, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Japan, and then European countries. A lot of great western artists gave high appreciations to Chinese shadow puppetry including the great German poet Goethe and English Comedian and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.

Rich visual effects

We call shadow puppetry the forerunner of film not only because it has a screen, but also because it has lots of visual effects that resemble modern motion picture.驴皮影

1. Depth from focus and defocus. In shadow puppetry, a skilled player can generate screen depth by moving puppets closer to or further away from the screen when the shadow can look sharp or blur.

2. Smoke effects. Smoke can be used to generate cloud or tense atmosphere.

3. Fire effect. This is not only exclusive in Hollywood action movies. With alcohol and rosin, the player can generate fire effect easily behind the screen to heat up the audience.

4. Animation. The puppets have lots of joints and moving parts. You can see a puppet with eye blinking or a puppet beheaded during a fight.

5. Wave effect. By gently tapping the screen, the player can generate pretty wave effect. Together with blue light, you can easily present a underwater world to the audience.

Current Condition and Where to Watch

In a previous post about shadow puppetry, I’ve talked about the current condition of shadow puppetry in China and a successful shadow puppetry company in Beijing. You can read here.

And in the end of this post, I’d like to share two videos about Chinese shadow puppetry taken by Gustavo Thomas.
Wuzhen, China: Chinese Shadow Puppet Theater
Wuzhen, China: Chinese Shadow Theatre (view from back stage)

[Chinese Keywords]
民间艺术 皮影戏

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