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Shadow Play

Shadow play is taken as an earliest ancestor of modern cinema; the unique artistic value makes it be reserved from the ancient time.

Performers respectively hold sticks and strings to control the characters while singing the libretto to tell the story behind the screen. The character, or we can say silhouette, is made of hard paper, buffalo and donkey hide. The silhouette is projected on a white screen as the actor or actress in this play. Then, the vivid shadow play is presented to audiences.

Shadow Play

Many artistic factors are included in this play. Light, screen, music, singing and puppetry form this interesting art. The harmonious appliance among these factors wins people’s highly praise, and gets a name as “a magic, lighting-like art”.


In China, shadow play appeared during the Western Han Dynasty (206BC~24AD) some 2,000 years ago with its birthplace at today's Shaanxi Province.

Here's a legend that Emperor Wu (156BC-87BC) of Western Han Dynasty was depressed about the death of his beloved concubine Li. In order to help him get over the sadness, Minister Li made a shadow on the curtain of concubine Li by cotton and silk. Then Emperor began to believe that it was his lover's spirit. It developed into a mature play during the Tang Dynasty and reached its heyday during the Qing Dynasty in Hebei Province. Many China’s local operas were evolved from shadow play. Known as the ‘magic of the East' among Europeans, shadow play is regarded as a precursor of modern cinema and cartoon.

Shadow Paly

As trade and cultural exchanged, shadow play has been successively spread to Persia, Arab, Turkey, Siam, Myanmar and some Europe countries like British, France, Italy since 13th century.

Oversea Influence

In many area of Indonesia, shadow show is still regarded as a sacred performance, and it’s an important part in religious rite and festival celebration. Shadow play is named as “wayang kulit” in Indonesian; wayang means silhouette and spirit, and kulit means skin. The vivid skin silhouette has been regarded as divinities and ancestral spirits.


Just as its name implies, shadow play is a kind of drama in which silhouettes made of hard paper or animal skins being projected onto a white screen. The performer manipulates the characters behind the screen while singing the libretto to tell the story. The story-telling is accompanied by music. The shadow maker is usually made out of clean cowhide or donkey skin with hair removed and colored by five pure watercolors of red, yellow, green, pale green and black.

Shadow Play

The skin should be translucent after chemical treatment. So the shadow can be endowed with magnificent transparent color on screen, which endows the play a great charm. Besides, the shadow makers are elaborately carved part by part. So the shadow maker can be regarded as the work of art itself.

Roles of Shadow Play

Same here, the roles of shadow play falls into five categories, which are Sheng, Dan, Jing, Mo and Chou. The difference is that every ‘player' consists of 11 parts including head, two body parts, two legs, two upper arms and lower arms as well as two hands. Drawn by the performers through controlling bars and threads, ‘players' can do various kinds of vivid movements. Shadow play demands for high performing skills. Besides control three or four ‘players' at a time, performers have to catch up with the tempo and musical accompany as well as pay attention to dialogue and singing. Hence, it is not an easy job to train a mature shadow play performer.

Shadow Play

Famous works

The themes of the shadow play are various from legend to fairy tale, Kong Fu story to romantic story. Hers Top China Travel recommend some famous and classic shadow play works to you.
• The West Chamber
• Water Margin
• The White-Haired Girl
• Mr. Dongguo

The Situation of Shadow Play

Due to modern audio-visual media, this form of performance can’t be popular as the situation two decades ago. But the unique feature and historic color in this performance make this art as a highly valuable cultural heritage in Chinese art field. And China is applying to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) for a certification as an intangible cultural heritage.