Chinese shadow puppetry’s design and aesthetic's have evolved over hundreds of years to become one of the most intricate shadow puppet traditions in the world. It is one of the few traditions that exclusively use colored shadows. Traditionally carved out of translucent animal hide with small hand blades and stained with mineral pigments, these puppets come alive with the light.
As the form spread throughout the nation from its origins in northern central China, each region developed its own aesthetic style that directly reflected their cultural values. Shaanxi province (northern central China) aesthetics have cultivated a large rounded forehead in their facial profiles to reiterate the importance of intelligence. Tangshan county (northeastern China) masters explained their sharp and dramatic profiles as reflecting the region’s overriding love of beauty. In Shandong and Hubei province, their relatively realistic profile features reveal their penchant for honesty. Each of these curves and corners that signify regions, characters, moods and philosophies are only as good as the master carvers are.
Today, master carvers are an increasingly rare breed. Long ago, the tradition was passed down from father to son to ensure that hard-won skills and secrets remained within a family. More recently, outside craftsman were able to enter the profession only if they could find a son-less master or a teacher willing to go against protocol.
Mastery in puppet carving depends on a great many factors: a gifted teacher, innate skills, dedication and the ability to test your puppets with a notable troupe. Often, the troupe puppet master and master carver would develop their skills together. There is no set apprenticeship period that ensures a master title, but certainly mastery does not come any quicker than 10-15 years.
Most masters today are without apprentices to carry on the legacy as Chinese shadow puppetry’s future remains tenuous. Without enough business to support even the living masters today, most master carvers are making their meager subsistence by working as public relations for ‘cultural commodity’ companies that sell shadow puppets as collectors items.
The tourist trade is doing a great deal to support the awareness of shadow puppetry in China, but little to cultivate its craft. New laser-cut puppets have ruined the hand-cut shadow puppet market as the common enthusiast can’t tell the difference between the real and the machine made.
To learn more about machine-made puppets, see our Handmade vs Machine Made page.
To read a puppet-cutter's profile, go to Wangyan's biography.