Shadow Puppetry is said to have originated in China over two thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty. The most popular origin legend tells of Emperor Han Wudi who was rendered irrevocably heartsick at the sudden passing of his favorite concubine. As the Emperor’s wisest advisor pondered the best way to revive the Emperor’s spirits, he came upon children playing in the courtyard with parasols under the midday sun. Their simple parasols cast shadows that were so lifelike, he was struck with an illuminating idea. That night, the advisor invited the Emperor to the courtyard for a special performance; there he conjured the likeness of the late Empress with such mastery that the Emperor was revived and went on to rule for many prosperous years. And while the origin legend is certainly more fiction than fact, it speaks to the historic power of the shadow.
Despite its high profile origins in China, shadow puppetry became a people’s art form; it’s simplicity, portability and nighttime performances were perfectly suited for the working classes. Farmers and laborers took up puppeteering, singing, musical instruments and storytelling after the sun went down to create a tradition that became the heart of their communities. All night performances were held for any and all occasions; birthdays, weddings, house raisings, and funerals. For the past two thousand years, the art form survived everything from war and famine, to regime changes and the Cultural Revolution.
In its heyday, Chinese shadow puppetry was popular in nearly every province making it one of the most wide-spread folk arts of China. Each region lent their own personality to the art form in everything from aesthetic to musical influences. Sadly, now in the 21st century, shadow puppetry in China is on a steep and fast decline. This ancient art form has steadily been losing the battle with cultural changes, urbanization and modern forms of entertainment in China’s swiftly modernizing republic. Audiences and apprentices are evaporating at an alarming rate.