After the death of his favorite concubine, it is said that Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi (156-87 BC) was so consumed with grief that he could not go about his daily affairs.
One of Wudi's ministers ordered local artists to recreate the concubine's image with colored clothes and project her image with candlelight.
When Wudi saw the image cast onto a thin, white sheet and dancing he cheered up immediately.
Since then, the ancient art of silhouette opera or shadow play has had a firm place in Chinese tradition.
It has evolved to be performed with leather instead of cloth and it is called piyingxi, which literally means "leather silhouette opera" in English.
Now, more than 2,000 years later, the Ministry of Culture announced last Saturday that piyingxi is on China's intangible cultural heritage list, which is composed of 518 cultural forms.
The news delighted Pan Jingle, 78, a piyingxi artist living in Huaxian County of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, which gave birth to the folk art genre by combining stage performances and handicrafts.
"I hope the declaration can help the folk art draw more public attention for its future development," Pan said.
Pan has been worried that the centuries-old folk art is becoming extinct.
Zhang Gengsheng, director of Huaxian County Cultural Centre, agrees.
"Few young people want to learn and perform the show," said Zhang. "Many items of this ancient folk art with special characteristics will be lost if elderly artists like Pan, pass away."
Even in the folk art's birthplace, Zhang explained, "many young people not only dislike watching the performance, but also know nothing about the art. They watch movies rather than this show."
Liu Junhua is a 23-year-old university student whose father is a shadow opera fan. But as for her, she feels the art form doesn't speak to the younger generation.
"We young people do not like the show because we do not understand what Pan and other elderly artists are singing and we do not want to understand," said Liu.
The stories the artists perform are too old and the performing methods are out of date, the student said.
However, Zhang argued that the leather silhouette is the art of sounds and light, and it can be considered the predecessor of modern cinema.
Shadow plays are a result of lamplight being projected onto a white cloth screen with artists singing and playing musical instruments behind it. It is like puppetry in Western countries, the director said.
Folk artists over the centuries have accumulated a lot of experience on how to bring the extremely complex art form to audiences. They believe the best material for making the leather-silhouette images is cattle hide, which is strong but translucent. The cattle hide then undergoes processing before it is used for shows.
The images, from people to animals, still reflect the drawing and painting styles of the Han (206 BC-AD 220), Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, which can be found on ancient murals, according to Zhang.
However, to enable the images "move" on the screen, each figure must have a few separate parts. For instance, a horse's head, body and legs are separately cut out and threaded together. Then, sticks are placed on its head, legs and tail so performers can hold and maneuver the parts, the director said.
Zhang said that the performances can be spectacular.
"The audience enjoys a full-length play thinking it features more than 100 actors and actresses, when actually there may be only four or five artists behind the screen," he said.
In Huaxian County, the art form is nicknamed "five-busy-people opera."
Pang Jingle's troupe is a five-man show, but he claims the performers can have the same effect as a 50-member orchestra.
Jiang Jianhe, a 40-year-old actor, can sing more than four different roles both male and female, and play an instrument at the same time. He started to learn and perform the opera at the age of 13.
In its history of more than 2,000 years, leather-silhouette opera became one of the major folk performing arts in China and has evolved into different styles and local schools, said Zhang Maocai, an expert on the leather-silhouette art.
Chinese shadow play was introduced to Europe through the ancient Silk Road in the 13th Century, and has been welcomed there since, the expert said.
Last October, the Shaanxi Provincial Folk Art Theatre toured the United States and presented the show "Cathay: Three Tales of China," created and directed by Chinese-American Ping Chong.
The shows caused a stir in Washington DC, New York and Seattle, according to Liu Hui, an official from Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Department. In a month, the theatre gave 65 shows.
With efforts made by both government and local people, the future of ancient folk arts such as the leather silhouette opera is very bright, the official said.
(China Daily June 12, 2006)