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Living, Breathing Heritage
Cover Stories Series 2012> Living, Breathing Heritage
UPDATED: February 7, 2012 NO. 6 FEBRUARY 9, 2012
Shadow Puppetry

The ancient performing art of shadow puppetry regained center stage after a long period of neglect, after it was newly added to UNESCO's World Intangible Cultural Heritage List on November 27, 2011.

Shadow puppetry is one of China's earliest performance arts. It appeared in the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) and became very popular in many parts of the country during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Shadow puppetry is a combination of performing arts and the carving art. The puppeteers operate the puppets behind a back-lit curtain screen. The audience sees the action unfold as the shadows play across the screen. The puppets, which are made of ox, sheep, or donkey skin, are essential stage props as well as brilliant handcrafted artworks. They present not only the characters, but also all kinds of objects from everyday life, such as clothes, ornaments, towers, pavilions, furnishings, and scenery.

The faces of the shadow figures, including human, supernatural, and animal beings, are carved intricately. Their facial features are often exaggerated. The young heroes and heroines, for example, often have elegant and noble slanted foreheads and noses. Treacherous characters always have extremely large eyes.

The origin of shadow puppet dates back over 2,000 years. It is said that a favorite concubine of Emperor Wu in the Han Dynasty died of an illness. The emperor missed her so much that he lost enthusiasm for life. One day, a minister happened to see children playing with dolls. When they played, the shadows on the floor moved vividly. Inspired by this scene, the smart minister got an idea. He made a cotton puppet of the concubine and painted it.

At night, he invited the emperor to watch a performance. The emperor was very happy to see the lively puppet of the concubine.

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