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Beijing Shadow Plays on the Verge of Extinction
Shadow plays are a traditional form of Chinese folk art. Traditional Beijing shadow puppets are made from donkey hide, the local people call it lupiying (donkey hide shadow play). For hundreds of years shadow plays have brought so much happiness and laughter to the people of Beijing. Now this traditional art form is facing the threat of extinction. The older generation of artists has almost disappeared; and the new generation displays little interest in acquiring the skills of the craft.

Lack of Successors

In the Huzhang Village of Beijing's Pinggu District lives an old shadow play craftsman and actor, named Hu Changyou. This 66-year-old man has attained the patrimonial skills of creating shadow puppets. He learned the skills from his father when he was very young. After years of practicing and manufacturing the puppets and plays Hu has built up a good reputation through out the Pinggu District. Now he's one of two living shadow play masters in the Pinggu District.

Hu Changyou has a large box containing lots of well-preserved puppets, including the Monkey King and the Pig Monk, which are famous characters in an ancient Chinese folk tale Journey to the West. Hu has made all of these puppets since the 1980s. However, few of these marionettes have appeared on stage in recent years, as Hu now looks upon them as cherished rarities and is loathed to use them.

Hu said that he has a son and two daughters. He had hoped to pass on his skills to his son, but his son never cared much for the art and showed little interest in learning it. Although an old rule requires a father to pass on traditional skills to their sons, and not their daughters, Hu had little option but to pin his hopes on his two daughters. But his two daughters didn't want to learn the craft either.

A Brilliant History

According to Hu, the shadow play actor operates the puppets from behind a screen and sings with music. A theatrical cast, composed of six or seven actors and a box of shadow play puppets, can perform more than 30 plays. After the performance is over they can then put all their things into a big box and move on to the next destination.

The equipment is portable, giving shadow plays the advantages of mobility. No matter where they are, in halls, squares, courtyards, or even rooms, so long as the cast can set up the screen and turn on the light box, they can act. In rural areas, there are a lot of shadow play companies, both big and small. During festivals, bountiful harvests or marriages, villagers always invite shadow play companies to come and perform. Some pay for the company to perform for a night while others pay for a couple of weeks. Many villagers will gather to enjoy the show.

The shadow puppets not only act in the play, but can also be used as personal toys and as wall or window decorations. The shadow play puppets are elegant antiques, which provide enjoyment and are worthy of collection. With the shadow play disappearing people are sure to forget the art. They will certainly never know the happiness such plays can bring; such a pity. In his spare time Hu always fiddles with his box of shadow play puppets. He said it's good for his health.

The Technique

Many people are curious about how these beautiful shadow play puppets are made. Hu described the whole process in detail: Processing the leather, drawing an outline on the leather, engraving the leather, coloring the leather, ironing the leather, oiling the leather, and finally, sewing into shape and joining it to an iron shaft. Hu explained the technique of engraving, which is the key point in the whole process. He starts with the cap and then the face, first the eyebrows then the eyes and nose, then on to the garment and finally the hair and other details. "The process seems very easy, but nobody can do it well unless they have studied the art diligently and practiced for more than five years."

Efforts to Protect

Wang Lu, director of the foreign affairs department of China Art Institute, said the shadow play is in serious danger of vanishing. Take the Beijing Shadow Puppet Theater Troupe, situated in Xuanwu District, as an example. The sixth generation bastion of the troupe, Lu Hai, is already in his fifties. His daughters and sons have all taken up other jobs. He is worried what will become of the tradition.

To save traditional forms of folk art, such as shadow plays, the Central Academy of Fine Arts set up an intangible heritage study center in May to save, collect, and study folk cultural heritage, and build an archive of China's intangible legacies.

In late September, the Beijing Culture Bureau entrusted the Beijing Public Art Center to collect Beijing national folk art. Wang Xihui, a researcher from the Beijing Public Art Center, said that Beijing has a lot of traditional folk art heritages. With the acceleration of industrialization and urbanization, the changing life styles and the impact of modern culture, many forms of traditional folk arts face the danger of extinction.

Wang Xihui said all the districts and counties in Beijing are now starting the process of collecting folk art materials and preserving the vanishing folk arts by recording, videotaping and photographing the events and materials.

The people from Social Culture and Library Administration Department of China's Culture Ministry said, the task of protecting folk art heritages, sponsored by the Culture Ministry and the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, has already kicked off. They plan to protect "oral and intangible heritage" in all its fashions. This project aims to compile and publish a 120-volume Collection of Chinese Folk Arts in 10 years.

(China.org.cn By Chen Lin November 26, 2002)

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