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Puppet Power, Part Three: Shadow Theater

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This is the final post in a three-part series that offers ideas for creating your own puppet shows with Library collections. The series is inspired by the annual puppet show that had been held at the Library’s Young Readers Center the day after Thanksgiving since 2013. This article was written by Ann Roddy, Head of the China Section for the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate of the Library, with instructions for creating your own shadow theater from preservation specialist (and puppet enthusiast) Leslie Long.

The world of Shadow Theater is much larger than performance. In bold outline, theater is everywhere in traditional Chinese life—in temples, the streets, the countryside, the marketplace, and the human soul. Shadows from trees played upon the wax windowpanes of traditional housing illuminated by the moon and the sun. Thunder and lightning were interpreted as cosmic dialogue. Before Shadow Theater become recognized as a performance art, it was a form of imaginative entertainment, the gods communicating with humans, and in turn human puppeteers communicating with the heavens, performing for the gods from whom they had been given the gift of their art.

The interplay of light and shadow created by the movements of the sun and the moon, the planets, and the stars inspired early Chinese shadow theater. The concept that stories could be told by the manipulation of light and shadow empowered the medium with deep meaning, and both consecrated and animated the characters with power and influence larger than the performance. This understanding of Shadow Theater spread throughout Asia.

Early puppeteers studied the magical performances of natural light and shadow, then created a miniature world in the shadow stage, and carved characters from mythology, oral storytelling, Buddhist and Daoist cautionary tales, and historical romances. This art form became more and more specialized as it spread between provincial regions, and certain areas became famous for mastery of particular genre of stories, for example, ghost stories, or love stories, or the stories of heroes and villains.

Two shadow puppets of people and one teapot puppet
These Chinese shadow puppets are from Shaanxi province and were created in the 19th to early 20th century. They survived the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 and the Cultural Revolution, when puppet theater was considered a counter-revolutionary art form. They are in Ann Roddy’s personal collection.

Shadow Theater performances were held publicly at all holidays, and enjoyed by old and young. And as Stephanie Hall from the American Folklife Center wrote in her blog post Puppets: A Story of Magical Actors, “Puppetry is often seen as both sacred and magical even today. In Southeast Asia, puppets made of expertly cut and decorated paper are used to cast shadows in puppet plays, accompanied by music. These are shadow puppets that tell stories of gods and heroes, most commonly tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. When these puppets are created they are prayed over as part of the process, and a completed puppet is said to be ‘born’ rather than made. Anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson documented the making of shadow puppets on a field project in Bali between 1936–1939. Some video footage of the making of shadow puppets that is part of their documentation is available here.”

At home, Shadow Theater can be an opportunity to explore storytelling through light and shadow and to discuss this unique cultural tradition with children.

How to Make a Shadow Puppetsteps for creating a shadow puppet

  1. Draw or print your puppet characters on cardstock. There is an example of a traditional Balinese puppet character here. The rare book collections include this set of Chinese paper dolls [PDF] from the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). You can find additional suggestions for resources to make stick figures on our Puppet Power, Part One blog post.
  2. Cut them out and paint them black.
  3. Attach a stick to the back of each of your shadow puppets with tape. A paint stirring stick is perfect.

How to Make a Shadow Theater

  1. Open the ends of a cardboard box for the puppet stage.
  2. Cut slim holes in the side to slide your puppets through.
  3. Paint and decorate the outside of your puppet theater.
  4. Attach white paper to the front and glue or tape its edges securely.
  5. Place a small lamp at the back of your theater.
  6. Dim your room lights and start the show.

steps for creating a shadow theater

To learn more:

  • Broman, Sven. Chinese Shadow Theatre. Stockholm: Ethnographic Museum of Sweden, 1981.
  • Chen, Fan Pen Li. Chinese Shadow Theater, History, Popular Religion, and Women Warriors. Ithaca:   McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.
  • World Encyclopedia of Puppet Arts
  • Digital Museum of Shadow

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