Chinese Shadow Play
During the Song Dynasty, it became one type of the prosperous folk arts, combined with the genre of popular entertainment mainly consisting of talking and singing. According to the Records of the Origins of Events by Gao Cheng of the Song Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Renzong, there were some people who could tell Romance of the Three Kingdoms stories or make puppets for a shadow play adapted from the stories. Hence the show of images of the wars among the kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu has been handed down to the present.
In An Account of the Capital's Wonders published in the Song period, a general description can be found of the materials that were used to make shadow puppets and the development of their variations as well as the contents of performance. It says: "The shadow show is played by people in the capital with figures and patterns carved and cut out from white paper in the initial stage and later on from painted sheep's skin. And its text of dialogue is quite like a narrative textbook of history." The capital referred to here was Bianliang (today's Kaifeng of Henan Province), the then capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
In the painting entitled "The Festival of Pure Brightness on the River" by Zhang Zeduan, a well known Song Dynasty genre artist, a puppet show and the like can be seen as an entertainment activity enjoyed by the folks in the capital of Bianliang.
During the Song period, evidence for the prosperous shadow theater can also be obtained from the record of a newly emerging trade of professional craftsmen who carved and made shadow puppets. This professional trade was recorded in the Former Events in Wulin. Wulin was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and was also known as Lin'an (now Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province). This proves that the shadow theater was further developed in the period from the Northern Dynasty to the Southern Dynasty. As the demand grew, craftsmen gradually formed a professional trade. At that time, there were different types of shadow play.
In the chapter titled "Capital's Entertainment Center and the Industry of Arts and Handicrafts" in the book The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendors Past, the record says, "Dingyi and Shouji play a kind of 'qiaoying show'."
In the book An Account of the Capital's Wonders, under the entry of "Miscellaneous Handicrafts," a few words say: "There is a kind of hand-operating shadow play."
According to Former Events in Wulin, "A sort of show staged in a small theater, and played by artists, is known as 'the great shadow show,' which is usually welcomed by children and its performance continues without stop in the whole evening."
In the musical score of the southern type of quyi (a type of verse for singing), there was also a melody to accompany the performance of a "great shadow show."
The Chinese character "qiao" meant the word "disguise" at the time. Various art performances in the then entertainment centers included a sort of qiaoXiangpu, or a comic wrestling.
In the qiaoying show, actors would imitate some movements of figures in shadow show. They would perform a burlesque to raise a laugh among the audience. If shadow play at the time had not been so popular in society, the qiaoying show would have never emerged.
"Hand shadow show," taken literally, probably means to use hands to make various silhouette shapes on a screen, just like a game played by people of today using their hands to make various animal shapes before a light source to form silhouettes on a white wall. Or maybe it is just a small-scale shadow show with both hands.
The "great shadow show" has been specified as a show played by artists. In the light of the historical records, we may guess and imagine the situation of how some types of dramas in the Song and Yuan dynasties took in nourishment from the movements and music of puppet and shadow shows.
The rulers of the Yuan Dynasty took shadow show as a pastime in their Imperial Court and military barracks. The army of Genghis Khan made a vast expedition across the expansive Euro-Asian continent. Along with the expedition, Chinese shadow show was also brought to many Arabic countries in the Persian Gulf area. And later it was brought into Turkey as well as to many countries in Southeast Asia.
In the early 14th century, the Persian historian Rashideg, telling an interesting episode in the history of exchange of shadow shows between China and Persia, said, "When the son of Genghis Khan came to the throne, he dispatched actors and artists to Persia to teach them a kind of drama played behind a screen (shadow show)."
During the Ming Dynasty, the shadow play continued to be staged in cities and villages. It was not only a favorite of the broad people of the lower class, but also was welcomed by educated people as well. People may get a glance at its popularity at the time through a eulogistic poem written by Qu You of the Ming period. Qu was a novelist who was well known for his classical Chinese novel New Tales Under Lamplight.
In the poem, we can see that historical stories remained the contents of puppet shows in the Ming period as a tradition passed down from the Song Dynasty. And the story referred to in the poem was about the war staged between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu scrambling for supreme power in the country in the third century BC -- the history of the war between the Chu and Han kingdoms.
The poem reads like this: A new shadow theater was recently opened at the entertainment center in the south of the town. / The theater, through illuminating candles and lights, / Shows the rise and fall of the kingdoms past. / Though he lost in the war, retreating to a ferry / By the Wujiang River, / The Conqueror of Chu remains to be honored / As a hero even doomed to flight.
During the Qing Dynasty, especially in the period between the late Qing and the early Republic of China, shadow shows prevailed across the whole country and various local styles were also established.
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