People who have lived in Shenzhen for many years may not know where the Nanshan Folk Culture Art Gallery is. Dialing 114 for directory assistance isn't much help as the gallery is not listed. Yet, according to Long Hui, executive curator of the gallery, the gallery stores the largest collection of leather shadow puppets in China.
Long says that the Nanshan Folk Culture Art Gallery, which is located within the Nanshan Recreation and Sports Center and was founded in 1997, owns more than 40,000 leather shadow puppets. Most of the puppets are from the personal collection of Zhao Shutong, a famous sculptor, leather shadow puppet collector and co-founder of the gallery.
The gallery, which opens five days a week from Monday to Friday, is open to public free of charge. On exhibition are many precious shadow puppets made from buffalo and donkey hide. Since the 300-square-meter gallery obviously cannot display all of the puppets, quite a large number of Zhao's puppets are currently kept in Beijing.
Shadow play, an ancient form of entertainment in China, has been widely referred to as the forerunner of modern film. Originating in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 24) and prosperous in the Song (960-1279) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties in the north of China, the genre has told numerous traditional stories to generations of Chinese.
Shadow performance art is a combination of drawing, sculpting and performing that makes excellent use of light and shadow.
First, the puppet maker cuts a buffalo or donkey hide in intricate patterns according to the drawing, paints them on both sides, irons and finally binds them. The whole procedure for making a quality leather shadow puppet takes about one to two days.
As to the performing, the performers hold the "actors"or "actresses" on the stage behind a white screen which is backlit so that the audience can see the mysterious shadows of the puppets on the screen. Behind the stage, a musical band plays folk music and actors and actress tell the stories through songs and dialogues.
With the advent of modern entertainment, this unique form of folk entertainment is on the decline. But one can still find many fans both at home and abroad. The Nanshan Folk Culture Art Gallery once organized a shadow play, which attracted thousands of spectators, who even wanted to have a try at staging a performance themselves.
With an eye to carrying on this traditional art, the gallery is preparing to develop it into a cultural industry. They plan to make, sell and appraise leather shadow puppets and organize shadow plays in the city’s bars, teahouses and restaurants.
(Southcn.com January 27, 2003)