Folk and variety arts have a long history in China. One of the oldest forms of folk art is puppetry. Puppeteers use various kinds of puppets, including marionettes, rod puppets, cloth puppets, and wire puppets in performances incorporating folk songs and dances and some dialogues. The subject matter is derived mainly from children's stories and fables. The shadow play is a form of puppetry that is performed by moving figures made of animal skins or cardboard held behind a screen lit by lamplight. The subject matter and singing style in shadow plays are closely related to local opera. Another popular folk art is the quyi, which consists of various kinds of storytelling and comic monologues and dialogues, often to the accompaniment of clappers, drums, or stringed instruments. [Source: Library of Congress]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Several forms of shadow and puppet theater have flourished in China during the centuries. The history of shadow theater in China may indeed be very long. A legend from the 1st century B.C. tells about an emperor who has lost his beloved and how a shaman brings her back to the emperor in the form of a shadow. On the other hand, it may be possible that shadow theater in China was born during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), when the Buddhist monks and missionaries visualised their didactic storytelling with shadow puppets. Textual evidence of the shadow theater is available from the Song Dynasty (960–1279). During that time, it is known that the shadow puppeteers formed their own guild. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

“Variety arts, including tightrope walking, acrobatics, animal acts, and sleight of hand date back at least as far as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and were very popular in the imperial court. Later, many of these feats were incorporated into the traditional theater, and they continued to be performed by itinerant troupes. As these troupes traveled around the countryside, they developed and enriched their repertoire. Since 1949 these art forms have gained new respectability. Troupes have been established in the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities, and theaters specifically dedicated to the variety arts have been built in major cities. Some troupes have become world famous, playing to packed houses at home and on foreign tours.

Websites and Sources: Chinese Opera Wikipedia article on Chinese Opera Wikipedia ; Beijing Opera Masks PaulNoll.com ; Literature: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu

Chinese Shadow Puppetry

Shadow puppetry (“piying”) uses puppets carved from cowhide and held up and moved with wooden sticks by puppet masters. Said to be more than 2000 years old, the art form incorporates vocal arts, music, fine art and craftsmanship. The puppets are illuminated and appear as silhouettes behind a translucent white cloth, sometimes performing among leather silhouette sets. Piying was dealt a severe blow in the Cultural Revolution and is kept alive by old-timers who have worked hard to collect old puppets and stories and are now trying to pass them on to the next generation.

‘shadow puppetry takes great skill,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Performances are deceptively spartan: a thin white sheet for a screen, a light behind it to cast the shadows, and the puppets themselves, which are pressed against the screen and manipulated by rods attached at key points. The audience sees a sort of cartoon---colorful figures dancing across the sheet. The artistry behind them is invisible. But artistry it is. It can take weeks to make a puppet, stripping cow or donkey hide to a translucent layer, carving a figure with thousands of minuscule cuts and hand-painting the completed work. Skillfully manipulating one---and learning how to direct, act, sing and play instruments---takes years. Mr. Cui went even further, adapting folk tales into original scripts and, later, writing books on the art.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 10, 2010]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Many regional variants of shadow theater evolved during the centuries. The style of Peking shadow theater, for example, developed into two major styles. The western, now completely vanished, style employed large archaic puppets, while the eastern school absorbed elements from live opera, particularly from the southern Kun Opera. In their costuming and gestures the delicate shadow puppets of the eastern school imitate actual kunqu actors. ** [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Chinese shadow puppets vary in size from some 20 centimeters to one meter. They are cut from leather that is treated and coloured so that they became transparent. Their legs, waists, shoulders and elbows can be bent, and their arms are constructed from two parts. Thus the puppets can imitate human movements when they are operated with rods behind a paper or muslin screen. Their reflections on the screen are colourful and their finer details are chiselled in the leather as a kind of filigree ornamentation. **

The execution of the puppet’s faces (which are usually shown in profile) is normally most delicate. They follow the conventions of opera make-up. Thus the faces of beautiful ladies and handsome scholars are usually cut so that only a narrow outline of the face is left from the leather to reflect the shape of their faces on the screen. The faces of the painted-face characters and the clowns are done so that their reflections carefully imitate the colourful facial make-up of the opera actors. The heads of the puppets are usually movable so that the costuming of the characters can be changed according to the needs of the play. **

The puppets also include many fantasy figures and animals. Just as on the opera stage, so also in the shadow theater there are props, also cut of leather, such as chairs, tables, bushes, pens, mirrors, pipes etc. Special effects were created by pieces of coloured glass or mirrors. With a piece of red glass the spurting blood of a brave warrior can be projected while the cool moon with its rays can be projected onto the screen through a metal cylinder. **

Chinese Shadow Puppetry Recognized by UNESCO

Chinese shadow puppetry was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011. According to UNESCO: “Chinese shadow puppetry is a form of theatre acted by colourful silhouette figures made from leather or paper, accompanied by music and singing. Manipulated by puppeteers using rods, the figures create the illusion of moving images on a translucent cloth screen illuminated from behind. [Source: UNESCO]

Many elder shadow puppetry artists can perform dozens of traditional plays, which are orally transmitted or found in written form. They master special techniques such as improvisational singing, falsetto, simultaneous manipulation of several puppets, and the ability to play various musical instruments. Many puppeteers also carve the puppets, which can have between twelve and twenty-four moveable joints. Shadow plays are performed by large troupes with seven to nine performers and smaller troupes of only two to five, primarily for entertainment or religious rituals, weddings and funerals and other special occasions.

Some puppeteers are professional, while others are amateurs performing during slack farming seasons. The relevant skills are handed down in families, in troupes, and from master to pupil. Chinese shadow puppetry also passes on information such as cultural history, social beliefs, oral traditions and local customs. It spreads knowledge, promotes cultural values and entertains the community, especially the youth.

Shadow Puppet Opera

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The puppets move according to the accompanying music just as the opera actors do. The puppeteer, who often also sings and delivers the dialogue, sits with his assistants behind the screen. The instruments of the orchestra vary according to the regional traditions. Shadow theater has often been performed at temple fairs and on market places. It was also the entertainment of upper-class ladies, who often were not allowed to move around freely or even attend opera performances. The small size of the shadow theater stage was suitable for setting up in private spaces, too. The plots of shadow plays are more or less similar to opera plots. They are often based on well-known epic stories telling about great warriors, famous wars, crime stories, romantic love etc. A director of a shadow theater was usually acquainted with history, literature and theater so that he was able to create plays for the use of his own group. ** [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

During the China mania or the so-called chinoiserie of the Rococo period Chinese shadow theater also became known in Europe. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, shadow theater was also used to illustrate revolutionary plays. In the late 20th century television and movies have reduced shadow theater’s popularity, and real, traditional performances are now rare. Many groups have turned to modernised shadow figures inspired by popular children’s comics or animations. **

There have been and still are in China several traditions of the three-dimensional puppet theater. They can be divided, according to their manipulation techniques, into three major groups. 1) Marionettes, which are manipulated from above with strings. 2) Rod puppets, which are manipulated by means of wooden rods. 3) Glove or finger puppets, which operated by the hand and the fingers **

Similarly to the shadow puppets, the three-dimensional puppets also imitate live opera actors in their types, costumes and facial features, although their size and styles vary according to different regions. In Chinese history annals puppets are often mentioned which provided entertainment at religious festivals or funerary ceremonies. Among them are known to have been complicated mechanical puppets which were able to play musical instruments or swim in the water. Generally, the repertory of puppet theater has been similar to that of traditional opera. The most complicated were marionettes which were sometimes operated by means of as many as 30 strings. The largest of the puppets are certain rod puppets the size of a human being, which are operated by several puppeteers. **

Similarly to shadow theater, puppet theater was also originally performed in connection with different festivities. When these festivities were banned during the People’s Republic, the original context of this art form vanished. Since then puppet theater has been heavily modernised, although original kinds of performances can still be seen outside the People’s Republic, for example in Taiwan and in Southeast Asia. **

Training Fujian Puppeteers Recognized by UNESCO

Strategy for training coming generations of Fujian puppetry practitioners was selected in 2012 by UNESCO for “Best Safeguarding Practices”. According to UNESCO: Fujian puppetry is a Chinese performing art consisting mainly of string and hand puppetry. Puppetry in Fujian Province in south-eastern China has developed a set of characteristic techniques of performance and crafting puppets, as well as a repertoire of plays and music. Since the 1980s, however, the number of young people learning puppetry has diminished due to socioeconomic changes transforming their lifestyles, on the one hand, and the long period of training required to master the sophisticated performing techniques, on the other. [Source: UNESCO]

“In response, concerned communities, groups and bearers formulated the 2008-2020 Strategy for the Training of Coming Generations of Fujian Puppetry Practitioners. The key objectives are to safeguard the transmission of Fujian Puppetry and to enhance its sustainability through professional training to create a new generation of puppetry practitioners; compilation of teaching materials; setting up of performing venues, training institutes and exhibition halls; sensitization of people through non-formal and formal education; regional and international cooperation; and artistic exchange.

“This strategy has witnessed a wide participation of practitioners, local people and educational institutions. In consequence, 200 potential practitioners have received professional training; 20 public puppetry groups have been established; and financial support has been provided to representative bearers.”

Lao Qiang Puppet Music: the Chinese Blues or Maybe Heavy Metal?

In July 2013, NPR reported: “To find a homegrown musical alternative to conventional musical tastes, just travel to the edge of northwest China's Shaanxi province, on the middle reaches of the Yellow River, on the southern edge of a vast plateau of dusty badlands. By the standards of wealthier southern China, the area is poor, dry and coarse. [Source: NPR, July 19, 2013 ]

“On a recent afternoon, local musician Zhang Junmin joins his fellow band members on a hill behind his village. They're there to perform a style of music called Lao Qiang, which is roughly translatable as "Old Tune." Zhang says it's been passed down in his family for centuries. If you didn't know better, you might think you were hearing the hard-knock life story of a Mississippi Delta bluesman.

“Zhang says his father was close to illiterate. Zhang himself was too poor to attend school. He farmed the land part of the time, and played music the rest. He says he learned his art the traditional way. "If I couldn't pick up a tune on my instrument, my papa would get mad," Zhang recalls in a raspy voice. "He'd come over and slap me upside the head. That slap would wake me up, and then I'd get it. If he didn't slap me, I wouldn't concentrate. And I wouldn't get it."

“Traditionally, Lao Qiang musicians would accompany a puppeteer, who would tell stories from behind a screen. It wasn't until a couple of decades ago that the musicians came out from behind that screen and performed on their own, in full view of the audience. The origin of Lao Qiang music is a matter of some dispute, but Zhang says the most plausible explanation he's heard is that it is descended from the chanteys of boatmen on the Yellow River (lots of "hey's" and "ho's") as they rowed barges laden with grain to the imperial capital at Chang'an during the Western Han dynasty, roughly 2,000 years ago.

“Zhang's band launches into a rip-roaring tune about combat among warlords during the third-century Three Kingdoms period. The string section saws away with such gusto that horsehairs come flying off their bows. A percussionist thrashes out a furious beat on a wooden bench. The musicians holler the song's lyrics in unison, as Zhang thrusts a banjo-like instrument called a sanxian into the air like a rock star. He says it's the stories that give the music its brash spirit. "Even in the coldest days of winter, we perform for five minutes and we're sweating," he says. "It's mostly the combat scenes. They just fire us up. It's not like we're trying to get fired up. We just can't help it!"

Beijing-based music critic Wang Xiaofeng says that when he heard Lao Qiang for the first time about 18 years ago, it reminded him of heavy metal: very physical and somewhat operatic. He adds that Lao Qiang is way outside the mainstream of Chinese popular musical taste. While many Chinese have gradually become aware of Lao Qiang music, the art form remains pretty obscure. Zhang Junmin says he's doing everything he can just to keep his family's tradition alive. "We don't want this music to be buried in the ground," Zhang says. "It belongs to society, and we should find a way to pass on our legacy. That's my dream."

Shadow Puppet Museum

“The Cui Yongping Shadow Play Art Museum exhibits shadow puppets” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Which is like saying the Louvre exhibits paintings. For here, one can see 15th-century Ming dynasty puppets; 18th-century puppets from the Qing dynasty; elaborately outfitted brides and grooms and warriors and courtiers and gods; dragons, birds, leopards, horses and demons. Clown puppets, and puppets being sawed in half or having a tongue ripped out in the 18 levels of Ming-era Hell. Ten thousand are on display. An additional 120,000 are stored in a warehouse. In all of China---in all of the world, really---there is nothing else like them. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 10, 2010]

“But almost nobody sees them. “You’re the first visitors this month,” Cui Yongping---the museum’s owner, curator and namesake---said sadly during a mid-November interview. “Eighty percent of our visitors are foreign,” said his wife and fellow curator, Wang Shuqin. The Cui Yongping museum gets no government or outside support so languishes in a dingy neighborhood in south Beijing, in seven musty rooms of two converted flats next to their first-floor apartment. Some puppets are shielded from the city’s sooty air with plastic wrap. Others adorn an exhaust hood over what was once a kitchen stove.”

“In 2010 Mr. Cui and his wife attained U.S. visas and the plan at that time was to take their puppets with them and build a museum there. “Culturally, this is not just China’s heritage. It’s a world heritage,” said Mr. Cui, at 65 a vibrant and voluble man despite a stroke that has withered his right arm and hobbled his speech. “I’m going to move the museum to America. My son is in America, and the Americans are smart. I want them to admire 2,000 years of history...I opened this museum because I wanted to encourage this art. I wanted it to become popular again,” Mr. Cui said. Instead, “people in China no longer learn about the things of our ancestors. What’s popular now is saying “O.K.,” and McDonald’s, and ballet and pop songs.”

Shadow Puppet Comrades Love Story

“Their story begins in 1961,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Cui and Ms. Wang met in the workshop of the Beijing Shadow Play Troupe, two of about 30 employees in one of the city’s premier theaters. She was 18, a new apprentice. He was 16 and handsome, his skill apparent after only a year of work.”

The Cultural Revolution intervened. In 1967, Mao’s henchmen scattered the troupe across China. Mr. Cui and Ms. Wang married, and were sent to Beijing No. 1 Smelting Factory, a steel mill. He shoveled coal. She ran the water pumps. They had a baby boy, then a girl. Shadow puppets were among an array of icons deemed reactionary and ordered destroyed. The couple had 100 puppets, the seeds of a collection begun the year before. They pulled bricks from beneath their home’s foundation, and hid them there.

The terror ended in 1976. Three years later, Mr. Cui and his wife left the steel mill and exhumed the collection; the Beijing troupe’s survivors reassembled. And in 1983, they took a triumphal 45-city tour of Germany, Austria, France and Italy. The applause, Mr. Cui said wistfully, was thunderous. Then, at a Paris lecture, Mr. Cui sought to present his views on puppetry, only to be mocked for his supposed lack of expertise. “The professor turned around and said, “You can’t give the lecture. Do you have a museum?” Ms. Wang said. “We were so upset.”

Collecting Shadow Puppets

“But in fact, China had few if any puppet museums, while scores of exhibits existed elsewhere,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times. “Back in Beijing, Mr. Cui said, he offered to help officials prepare exhibits on the craft. They enthusiastically agreed. “I never heard from them again,” he said. “I said to myself, “I’m getting older by the day. Forget it. I’m going to do it myself.”

“For the next 15 years, Mr. Cui crisscrossed the nation, flattering local propaganda and culture officials, asking, “Where are the puppets in this town?” The couple’s collection mushroomed. From one village in Hebei Province came a Ming dynasty collection depicting the inventive tortures of the 18 levels of Diyu, a Taoist and Buddhist vision of Hell. From another village, salvaged from a trash heap, came a sheaf of puppets illustrating China’s resistance against Japan in World War II.”

In 2003, Chinese authorities consented to allow privately run museums. When the Cui Yongping Shadow Play Art Museum opened in 2004, Ms. Wang said, eight government experts pronounced themselves amazed at the collection. That was their last contact with officialdom. ‘since the opening, no one has come. The minister of culture, he has never come. They’ve never supported us in any way,” Ms. Wang said. They soldier on, supported by their pensions and the sales of handmade puppets.

Pingshu Storytelling

Pingshu is a traditional style of Han Chinese storytelling tradition in which a storyteller performs with no musical accompaniment. It is especially popular in northern China. In southern China it is called and pinghua. Pingshu was extremely popular in the 1980s, when the Chinese were first able to afford radios and listened to pingshu along with radio drama programs. People of all ages listened to storytelling when they worked in their fields and relaxed at home while sipping tea. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Pingshu dates to the Song Dynasty (960-1278). Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: “In the pingshu tradition, the performer wears a traditional gown and sits behind a desk equipped with a folding fan and a wooden block, which is used like a gavel. The storyteller recounts a legend — typically a classical Chinese epic — from memory, using different voices and exaggerated gestures as well as adding occasional background detail and commentary. It is a demanding profession that combines acting, oration, writing, historical research and literary criticism and requires countless hours of memorization. [Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, September 17, 2018]

Popular stories brought to life by pingshu storytellers included General Yue Fei, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cavalier with White Eyebrows and Sui Tang Yanyi. Among the most famous Pingshu performers were as Shan Tianfang (1934-2018), Yuan Kuocheng (1929-2015), Tian Lianyuan (born 1941) and Liu Lanfang (born 1944). In recent years many of the great pingshu performers have died, and the tradition is fading. Interest in pingshu among Chinese has largely been replaced by mobile phones and gaming.

Shan Tianfang: China’s Premier Pingshu Storyteller

Shan Tianfang (1934-2018) was arguably China’s most famous pingshu storyteller. Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: His “energetic oral renditions of classical Chinese novels and historical events propelled the ancient pingshu tradition into the modern age for generations of Chinese. He tried for many years to avoid becoming a performer of pingshu. Growing up in 1950s China in a family of folk art performers, he had seen struggle firsthand. It was a life of constant financial troubles and low social status. So it was with great reluctance when, out of financial necessity, he became an apprentice to a family friend who was a master of pingshu. He made his debut in 1956.[Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, September 17, 2018]

“Mr. Shan grew to love the storytelling form. But bothered by what he felt were the many historical inaccuracies and superstitious fantasies found in the classical epics, Mr. Shan, who had studied history, soon began performing his own interpretations based on his meticulous historical research. In teahouses around the northeastern region, he became celebrated for his fresh takes on the classics. “The new China was not the same as before,” he once said in an interview. “People wanted to see a pure stage free of superstition with characters that actually made sense.” With the onset of the repressive Cultural Revolution in 1966, however, radicalized youth sought to root out all remnants of China’s ancient “feudal” culture, and that included pingshu. Mr. Shan was labeled a “counterrevolutionary” and sent to do manual labor in a village in northeastern China. “In his memoir, published in 2011, he called those years of persecution his “life’s greatest suffering.”

Shan Chuanzhong was born on Dec. 17, 1934, in Tianjin, China. His mother, Wang Xianggui, was a stage actress. His father, Shan Yongkui, was a folk musician who played the sanxian, a three-stringed Chinese lute. Growing up, Mr. Shan and his four sisters frequently moved around northeastern China with their parents, an experience that left him longing for a more stable life and career. But in the early 1950s, when his parents divorced and his mother left the family, Mr. Shan gave up his dream of being a doctor and embraced his performance heritage. After completing his apprenticeship with a pingshu master, he joined a folk arts troupe in Anshan, a town in northeastern China known then for its teahouses and pingshu performers. He found early success on the regional teahouse circuit until the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966, derailed his career for a decade.

Shan Tianfang Brings Pingshu Alive on Radio

Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: With the collapse of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Mr. Shan set out to revive his pingshu career. Many Chinese were hungry for something other than bland, party-approved propaganda, and it was against this backdrop that he leapt at the opportunity to record a pingshu radio broadcast. He soon discovered that performing on radio was vastly different from doing so in teahouses. There were no props, no reactions from the audience to guide him — just Mr. Shan and the microphone in a recording studio. [Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, September 17, 2018]

“So for his first radio performance, an abridged version of the historical novel “The Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties,” Mr. Shan used the studio’s three recording technicians as his audience and adjusted his performance based on their reactions. The performance had its premiere in 1980 on Chinese New Year, and more than 100 million Chinese were estimated to have tuned in during the 56 hours over which it was broadcast. It was the beginning of a dramatic second act both for Mr. Shan and for pingshu in the People’s Republic of China. He was soon a household name across the country.

““In the 1980s everyone had a radio, so you could hear Shan Tianfang everywhere, in homes and in taxis,” Zhu Dake, a Chinese cultural critic, said in an interview. “He took a traditional art form and made it popular by adapting it to the new era in the most simple way.” Over six decades, Mr. Shan recorded more than 110 stories for radio and television totaling about 12,000 episodes and spanning 6,000 hours. His best-known works include his renditions of Chinese classics like “White-Eyebrow Hero” and “Sanxia Wuyi” and his dramatizations of historical figures like Zhuge Liang and Lin Zexu.

“Even today, hop into a Beijing taxi and the driver may be listening to one of Mr. Shan’s recordings. “For my generation, Shan Tianfang was a master,” said Zhao Fuwei, 48, a Beijing taxi driver. “If back then there was such thing as a viral star, then Shan Tianfang was definitely the hottest viral star.” Listening to his stories has made it easier to kill time in bad traffic,” Mr. Zhao added. “He was so good at making complicated historical stories simple and interesting. You feel like you could relate to the characters in his stories, even though they lived a long time ago.”

“The revival of Mr. Shan’s career in the early 1980s and his subsequent rise to national prominence paralleled the re-emergence of the pingshu tradition. Nevertheless, even after retiring, Mr. Shan worked tirelessly to promote pingshu among young Chinese, mentoring apprentices and starting a school dedicated to the folk arts. Ever willing to adapt to new technologies, he posted a message to his Sina Weibo microblog account on Sept. 6, five days before his death. It was an announcement about a new live-streamed lecture series about pingshu.

Image Sources: 1,7) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 2) Chinese Hisorical Society ; 3, 9) Beijing government ; 4) Henan historical Museum; 5,8) Peking Opera home page; 6,9, 10) Trisha Shadwood travel blog; 11) Kunqu opera, UNESCO

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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