Known among some Europeans as the "magic of the East", the Chinese shadow play or Daoqing, a precursor to the modern movie, will once again have a domestic audience. From April 25 to 27 the Daoqing Shadow Play Troupe of Huanxian County, northwest China's Gansu Province will give six performances in the Beibingmasi Theatre (North Theatre) in Beijing. This is an experimental commercial performance of folk art heritage in China.
Shi Chenglin, an actor in the Daoqing Shadow Play Troupe of Huanxian will head the list in the performance. Shi, already in his 60s, led the troupe through Italy, Germany and other countries for a month recently. The troupe has the characteristic roughness of people from northwest China. The main performances are traditional themes for folk drama and include, Cat Replacing The Prince, Monkey Subdues the White Bone Demon, Wang Qi Is Afraid of His Wife.
China is the home of the Shadow play, that began during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) and spread all over the country in the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. It also spread to South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and North Africa between the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. The ancient Chinese art spread to Europe then in the seventeenth century.
This ancient folk tradition gradually fell from the spotlight upon impact of modern media of television and movies. Shadow plays were in danger of extinction. Many shadow play groups had been disbanded, and many of the most talented artists have died, which has made certain types of lyrics, melodies, shadow play puppets and performances in many areas very rare.
Fortunately, Daoqing shadow play in east of Gansu Province is alive and well. It is a cultural symbol of Gansu Province, and for northwest China. In the last century Huanxian County had many famous shadow play troupes and actors, such as Xie Changchun (1843-1916) who made considerable contribution to the Huanxian shadow play tradition.
The Chinese Gansu Shadow Play Troupe, which consists of Shi Chenglin and other five members, visited Italy in 1978 on the invitation of the Italy-China Friendship Association, staging 24 Daoqing shadow plays in 13 cities including Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence. The troupe has sparked strong interest among European audiences, and is praised as “the magic Eastern art troupe”.
According to Li Ge, of the sponsor, Beijing Tongji Culture Communication Ltd, with economic globalization there is a tendency towards convergence among the arts in all countries and China must concentrate on folk heritage if it wishes to keep the culture a feature for another thousand years.
The reason for the well-protected shadow play culture in Huanxian is due to the area’s remoteness and the fact that it is beyond other cultural influences.
But in recent years, with old actor’s deaths and young people leaving, the shadow play is on the wane. It’s not on the same level as its heyday or in terms of the number of a troupe, its actors and their performances. Beijing Tongji Culture Communication Ltd has invited the Daoqing Shadow Play Troupe of Huanxian County to perform in Beijing to protect this treasured folk art heritage through commercial support and sponsorship.
(China.org.cn by Chen Lin, April 7, 2003)