A century ago when movies were first introduced to China, they were called Western shadow plays, a foreign equivalent of the Chinese folk art piying (literally leather shadows in Chinese), or shadow puppet show.
The illuminated puppet figures are manipulated by at least three to five artists (puppet masters), who stand behind a transparent white cloth screen. These performances combine vocal art, music, fine art and craftsmanship.
But the silhouette puppets are by themselves works of art.
Combining Chinese folk painting, paper cutting skills and given either realistic or symbolic body features, clothes, props and headdresses, these puppets can represent a range of characters from ancient military officers, scholars, beauties to celestial beings and devils.
It is unclear when shadow plays began in China but they gained popularity as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), in Beijing alone, there were reportedly 40 to 50 shadow play troupes.
This traditional opera has attracted a huge following in provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Liaoning, Zhejiang, Hubei, Guangdong, Shaanxi and Gansu.
The shadow play was one of the earliest Chinese arts introduced to the West. In the 13th century, the plays became a regular form of entertainment in the barracks of Mongolian troops. The plays were spread by Mongols to distant territories like Persia, Arabia and Turkey and were later introduced to Southeast Asian countries.
Shadow puppets were seen in Europe in the mid-18th century when French missionaries to China took them back to France in 1767 and put on performances in Paris and Marseilles, causing quite a stir.
Today, more than 20 countries are known to have shadow play troupes.
(China Daily May 23, 2007)