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20th Century


In the late 1800s, Chinese shadow puppetry would begin the long struggle to keep its audience as China headed into a string of internal and external battles for control of the country.  As the Communist party declared victory and named it a ‘New China’ in 1949, the folk art traditions were to weather their biggest blow yet.  The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) saw to the occlusion of many traditional art forms.  

The government was suspicious of shadow puppetry because of its grassroots origins, its relationship in religion and superstition, and its widespread popularity throughout the mainland.   Shows made by and for the people meant messages they couldn’t control.  And even after its early 1900s decline, there were still dozens of troupes in many of China’s provinces with deep enough followings to warrant notice.

So, the practice of traditional Chinese shadow puppet was banned.  In some provinces, it would be devastating – an entire region’s shadow puppet treasures decimated by fire.  Other provinces that were lucky enough to have more lax officials were left relatively unscathed.   

In some regions, a single troupe was allowed to continue – as long as they took their performance directives from the government.

The Turtle and Crane was the first ever National shadow puppet play of China.  Funded as a government initiative during the Communist Revolution in 1952, Turtle and Crane was created by an intellectual named Zhai Yi, in collaboration with two shadow puppet artists, just after the formation of new China. Of course, the shadow troupes that were still allowed to practice at the time took it up with open arms.

The schism that occurred in 1952 between traditional shadow puppetry and its 'new form' pushed by the government remains the same today.  When the ban finally became irrelevant in the late 1970s, traditional troupes tried to pick up where they left off only to find that their audience had completely changed.  They were and are still faced with the choice of modernizing to survive and most remain somewhere on the spectrum in between.

To see more Chinese shadow puppets from this time period, go to our Aesthetic>Modern Aesthetic page or click here.

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