From thousands of troupes at the end of the 1800s to hundreds after the opening of China in the late 1970s to just a few dozen troupes in 21st century China, the decline of performances has been swift and significant. Of the troupes still performing, only a rare few are able to make their living entirely by traditional performances. These rare troupes are usually still functioning off a lucky blend of their region’s geographic isolation, lower economic conditions and strong religious ties – all of which keep out competing forms of entertainment and ensure the relevance of shadow puppet performances.
Most Masters and their troupe members run a combination of performances for local community members and tourists as well as collaborating with the government for funding and cultural commodity companies who have taken advantage of a growing market interest in the puppets themselves.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) inscribed Chinese Shadow Puppetry on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2011. The program was established to safeguard, preserve and promote awareness of intangible folk arts around the world and while it has certainly helped garner attention to the folk arts it’s inscribed, much remains to be seen about its ability to meaningfully contribute to the prolonged survival of these living arts.
As of 2011, the program stated that it would fund two members of any inscribed troupe. This helps to deal with the immediate problem of preserving masters but fails to fund a troupe en whole, which is necessary for live performance, and certainly keeps the biggest threat at large: where are the students? Without a stable future the younger generation has steered clear of shadow puppetry often with the urging of their elders.