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Chinese Shadow Play--Precursor of Modern Cinema--Experiences a Revival
Known as the "magic of the East" among Europeans, Chinese shadow play, a precursor of modern cinema, is experiencing a revival following a period of marked decline.

Known as the "magic of the East" among Europeans, Chinese shadow play, a precursor of modern cinema, is experiencing a revival following a period of marked decline.

Shadow play is a kind of drama in which silhouettes made of hard paper and hide are projected onto a white screen. The performer manipulates the characters behind the screen while singing the libretto to tell the story. The story-telling is accompanied by music.

Chinese shadow play, which came into being during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, spread to South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and North Africa in the 13th century. The ancient Chinese art spread to Europe in the 17th century. The famous German poet Goethe staged European opera in the form of Chinese shadow play, and modern movies derived, in part, from the ancient art.

The ancient art gradually fell from the limelight due to the impact of modern audio-visual media such as television and movies. Many shadow play groups have been disbanded, and many of the most talented artists have died. In many areas, certain types of plays and the art of performance are actually nearing extinction.

Fortunately, shadow play is alive and well in Huanxian County in northwest China's Gansu Province, where outside cultural influence is limited due to its remoteness.

Huanxian County now has more than 90 shadow play groups, all of which are made up of farmers. This county, the birthplace of Daoqing shadow play, is currently hosting the first Daoqing shadow play festival.

Originating near the end of the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644 AD) and the early part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), Daoqing Shadow Play is softer and more melodious than other types due to its use of Tao music, characterized as peaceful and holy.

Daoqing shadow play features a single performer who manipulates all of the characters and conducts the orchestra, as well.

Chinese shadow play has been staged in Europe and the United States in recent years.

Shi Chenglin, a shadow play artist from Huanxian County, has presented the art in Italy, a country renowned for its opera. Since 1987, the Chinese Gansu Shadow Play Troupe has staged 24 Daoqing shadow plays in 13 cities including Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence. The performances have sparked strong interest among European audiences.

In Italy, the audience swarmed to the stage following the performance, eager to understand the "story behind the screen". Some even offered 50,000 US dollars to buy the stage set.

"The wonder of the shadow play lies in its application of local culture rather than well-constructed stage set. If one is unfamiliar with the customs of northwest China, the value of the art is abated," said Shi Chenglin.

Qiao Xiaoguang, an expert on folklore, said, at the festival, "The globalization of the world economy is assimilating all forms of arts. China must return to its traditional arts to maintain its special cultural characteristics."

Both Chinese artists and the Government are making great efforts to conserve and propagate the ancient art form. Shi Chenglin and his troupe are going on tour in France and Portugal, and the local government is applying to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to obtain certification of this ancient art form as an intangible cultural heritage.

( People's Daily August 23, 2002)

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