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Out of Shadows

Seventy-six-year-old Tang Zhaofu has been regarded as an idol by thousands of enthusiasts for shadow puppetry in East China's Anhui Province.

Over the past 60 years, Tang and his troupe have toured around the province, staging over 10,000 shadow plays. They also perform in other provinces like Jiangsu, Shandong, Henan and Zhejiang.

"Shadow puppetry is not only my career, but also my life-long devotion," exclaimed Tang.

Born in Fengmiao Town in northern Anhui, Tang began to study the art of shadow puppetry when he was a child. His great talents helped him to become a puppetry artist at the age of 16.

The art of shadow puppetry is a combination of drawing, carving, painting and performing.

The shadow puppets, made mostly of leather, are displayed against translucent screens lit up from behind.

As one of the traditional folk arts in China, shadow puppetry dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). But the first historic record about this folk art was made in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) saw the first professional shadow puppetry troupes and artists. It gradually developed into an art form and became a favorite performance at festivals.

Tang Zhaofu has created over 3,000 shadow puppets. The various characters he created are extremely lifelike.

In his troupe, Tang is also a puppeteer. His impressive singing highlights flower-drum opera, a local opera popular in the province.

The troupe's current repertoire consists of traditional operas of many acts such as "Journey to the West," "White Snake Lady," "Flaming Hill," and typical short shadow plays such as "Tortoise and Crane."

Generally, the Spring Festival is the busiest time for Tang's troupe, because most farmers in Anhui are accustomed to watching the shadow plays during this traditional festival.

Tang has become increasingly worried about the future of shadow puppetry and his troupe.

His three sons have refused to carry on the tradition. The number of audiences is also shrinking.

Yet, Tang will not give up. "I will perform the shadow puppetry as long as I live."

(China Daily June 21, 2002)

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