shadow plays

Shadow play

Shadow play (Chinese: 皮影戏, pi ying xi) or shadow puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment using opaque, often articulated figures in front of an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images. It is popular in various cultures. At present, more than 20 countries are known to have shadow show troupes.


Mainland China

Shadow puppetry originated during the Han Dynasty when one of the concubines of Emperor Wu of Han died. The emperor was devastated, and he summoned his court officers to bring his beloved back to life. The officers made a shape of the concubine using donkey leather. Her joints were animated using 11 separate pieces of the leather, and adorned with painted clothes. Using an oil lamp they made her shadow move, bringing her back to life. Shadow theatre became quite popular as early as the Song Dynasty when holidays were marked by the presentation of many shadow plays. During the Ming Dynasty there were 40 to 50 shadow show troupes in the city of Beijing alone. In the 13th century, the shadow show became a regular recreation in the barracks of the Mongolian troops. It was spread by the conquering Mongols to distant countries like Persia, Arabia, and Turkey. Later, it was introduced to other Southeastern Asian countries. The earliest shadow theatre screens were made of mulberry paper. The storytellers generally used the art to tell events between various war kingdoms or stories of Buddhist sources. Today, puppets made of leather and moved on sticks are used to tell dramatic versions of traditional fairy tales and myths. In Gansu province, it is accompanied by Daoqing music, while in Jilin, accompanying Huanglong music forms some of the basis of modern opera.

Chinese shadow puppetry is shown in the 1994 Zhang Yimou film To Live.


The origins of Taiwan's shadow puppetry can be traced to the Chaochow school of shadow puppet theater. Commonly known as leather monkey shows or leather shows, the shadow plays were popular in Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung as early as the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.). Older puppeteers estimate that there were at least a hundred shadow puppet troupes in southern Taiwan in the closing years of the Qing. Traditionally, the eight to 12-inch puppet figures, and the stage scenery and props such as furniture, natural scenery, pagodas, halls, and plants are all cut from leather. As shadow puppetry is based on light penetrating through a translucent sheet of cloth, the "shadows" are actually silhouettes seen by the audience in profile or face on. Taiwan's shadow plays are accompanied by Chaochow melodies which are often called "priest's melodies" owing to their similarity with the music used by Taoist priests at funerals. A large repertoire of some 300 scripts of the southern school of drama used in shadow puppetry and dating back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has been preserved in Taiwan and is considered to be a priceless cultural asset..


A number of terms are used to describe the different forms.

  • (皮影戏, pi ying xi) is a shadow theatre using leather puppets. The figures are usually moved behind a thin screen and is not entirely a show of shadows as it is more of a silhouette shadow. This gives the figures some color, and is not 100% black and white.
  • (纸影戏, zhi ying xi) is paper shadow theatre.
  • (中國影戏) is Chinese shadow theatre.


The show began to spread to Europe in the mid-18th century, when French missionaries in China took it back to France in 1767 and put on performances in Paris and Marseilles, causing quite a stir. In time, the Ombres chinoises (French for "Chinese Shadows") with local modification and embellishment, became the Ombres françaises and struck root in the country.

The art was a popular entertainment in Paris during the 19th century, especially in the famous nightclub district of Montmartre. The tradition in France dates back to at least the mid-18th century when it was brought back by travellers to the Orient. The puppeteer Dominique Séraphin first presented the spectacle in Paris in 1776, and in Versailles in 1781.

The cabaret Le Chat noir ("The Black Cat") produced a number of popular Ombres chinoises shows in the 1880s, using up to 20 assistants and a large, oxy-hydrogen back-lit performance area. The Ombres evolved into numerous theatrical productions and had a major influence on phantasmagoria.

Indonesia and Malaysia

In Indonesia (notably Java and Bali), and Malaysia (Kelantan), shadow puppet plays are known as wayang kulit. In Javanese and Malay, Wayang means shadow or imagination, while Kulit means skin and refers to the leather that puppets are made from. Stories presented are usually mythical & morality tales. There is an educational moral to the plays which usually portray a battle between good and evil, with good always winning and evil running away (but eventually to return). The Indonesian shadow plays are sometimes considered one of the earliest examples of animation.

The puppets are made primarily of leather and manipulated with sticks or buffalo horn handles. Shadows are cast using an oil lamp or, in modern times, a halogen light, onto a cotton cloth background. They are often associated with gamelan drum music (or Pinpeat orchestral in Cambodia). Shadow plays are very popular even today. They are performed during sacred temple ceremonies, at private functions, and for the public in the villages. A performance can last all night long, sometimes up to six hours or until dawn.

UNESCO designated Wayang Kulit as a Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on November 7 2003.


Shadow theatre in Thailand is called Nang Yai; in the south there is a tradition called Nang Ta Lung. Nang Yai puppets are normally made of cowhide and rattan. Performances are normally accompanied by a combination of songs and chants. Performances in Thailand were temporarily suspended in 1960 due to a fire at the national theatre. Nang drama has influenced modern Thai cinema, including filmmakers like Cherd Songsri and Payut Ngaokrachang.

The Ottoman Shadow Play and its Turkish and Greek descendants

The Turkish tradition of shadow play called Karagöz and Hacivat was widespread throughout the Ottoman Empire and featured characters representing all of the major ethnic and social groups in that culture. It was performed by a single puppet master, who voiced all of the characters, and accompanied by a classical Ottoman music ensemble. Its origins are obscure, deriving perhaps from an older Egyptian tradition, or possibly from an Asian source.

During the 19th century these characters were adapted to the Greek language and culture, Karagöz and Hacivat becoming Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis with each of the characters assuming stereotypically Greek personalities. This tradition thrived throughout Greece after independence as popular entertainment for a largely adult audience, particularly before competition arose from television. The stories did, however, retain the period setting in the late years of the Ottoman Empire. Karagiozis theatre has undergone some revival in recent years, with the intended audience tends largely juvenile.

Shadow puppetry today

In the 1910s the German animator Lotte Reiniger pioneered silhouette animation as a format, whereby shadow play-like puppets are filmed frame-by-frame. This technique has been kept alive by subsequent animators and is still practised today, though cel animation (most famously in the TV anime Revolutionary Girl Utena) and computer animation (such as the German short film Our Man in Nirvana) has also been used to imitate the look of shadow play and silhouette animation.

Shadow theatre itself is still popular in many parts of Asia. Prahlad Acharya is one famous Indian magician who incorporates it into his performances.

It also appears occasionally in western popular culture, for example in:

Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

  • The entertainer Bablu Mallick, who used used shadow play in his act during 1980's TV appearances, including on Paul Daniels Magic Show.


Richard Bradshaw OAM is a famous Australian shadow puppeteer. His character Super Kangaroo is just one in his varied repertoire. The skill of Bradshaw has been featured in television programs made by Jim Henson.



Further reading

  • Copeland, Jonathan in consultation with Ni Wayan Murni (2008) "Secrets of Bali, Fresh Light on the Morning of the World". Gateway Books International
  • Currell, David, An Introduction to Puppets and Puppetmaking, New Burlington Books, (1992) ISBN 1-85348-389-3
  • Logan, David, Puppetry, Brisbane Dramatic Arts Company (2007) ISBN 9780980456301

External links

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