The sun is setting and villagers are gathering amidst a din of chatter and eating. The shadow troupe of just a few men moves quickly to put up their elevated stage with roughly hewn sticks and some worn fabric. From an outsiders perspective, it looks like nothing but a badly made tent – until the lamp is lit. Then, magic happens. For hours into the dark night, the villagers watch characters and stories come to life before their very eyes. They laugh, cry and learn with stories of morality, love, propaganda and bravery.
The performance lasts through the night. Each hour ushers in a changing audience: everyone at first, then the older kids and the elders as the parents put the youngest to bed, then the adults and elders as all the children head to sleep and finally, just the elders remain.
Like all folk arts, these activities were common experiences shared by communities to teach, bond and entertain. As most peasants were illiterate up until the mid-1900s, shadow puppetry was one of the most effective ways to quickly spread a message or story.
Just like Chinese shadow puppet history and aesthetics, performance is something that varied greatly with geography. Traditionally, Chinese shadow puppet shows were mostly performed for the larger community as a center point for festival celebrations or for a more select community at private functions such as birthdays, weddings, funerals and house-raisings. Only the most popular troupes made their entire living with a combination of these two types of events while most continued to work as farmers during the day and perform for their villages at night.
Music and singing continues to be the backbone of any performance. Shadow puppetry was originally just an accompaniment to the music, hence the phrase ‘are you going to hear a show?’ which explains why the older puppet styles remained so small. Just a few rows back from the front and the exquisite detail in those puppets all but disappears. It didn’t matter, most of the audience was there to listen. As shadow puppetry developed into an art form in its own right, certain regions began to enlarge their puppets to accommodate for growing audiences and an increasingly visual culture.
Shadow puppet music ranges from traditional music to local opera styles and everything in between. Most regions use a combination of both and, of course, put their own twist on things. Instruments varied greatly but most always included percussion (wood block, small cymbals and drums) and an erhu (simple stringed instrument).
Traditionally (in certain regions), the organization of a troupe was one singer, one puppet master and 3-5 musicians. The singer is the keeper of all stories and sings all roles including the narrator. The puppet master manipulates all the puppets with occasional help from a resting musician. Musicians were often a rotating group and could come and go as they pleased, depending on who was available. Today, the troupe organization has changed greatly due to a reliance on recorded music, a lessened importance on narrative and the increased desire for puppet gimmickry.
What few traditional performances can be found in mainland China today still place the greatest importance on music and sung narrative.
For a video of a traditional performance in Western China, go to our Performance > Video page and follow the links to the Bazhong Troupe Video.
Or click here.