Chinese Culture - Shadow play - 皮影戏 (Píyǐngxì)
posted at  2012-03-07 00:34  He Zhi Qiang

If you walk through the streets of Xi’an, especially in the city centre near the South Gate, you will find a lot of nice artefacts related to the culture of Shaanxi Province. We want to explain one of them because in our humble opinion, it represents the old culture of Shaanxi Province best.

There are some different theories about the origin of the Chinese shadow-play.

ⅰ. Some people think the first shadow-play figures were invented to illustrate Buddhist sermons, first made of paper, then later of leather. You can find, for instance, a whole set of shadow-play figures in the “German Leather Museum” in Offenbach showing very detailed depictions all the tortures of the “Buddhist Hell”.

ⅱ. Others think it has its origin in the marionette theatre of Shaanxi Province. The unintended shadows of the marionettes gave the players the idea to create a two-dimensional theatre.

ⅲ. The next opinion about the origin of shadow-play is that the shadow-plays were invented by people who used the “lantern of galloping horses”, a paper drum with a candle in the centre, projecting the shadows of the figures onto the screen.

ⅳ. Another theory says the hand shadow-play of Southern China might be the origin, until now we can find this form of shadow-play in Guangzhou (Canton).

Ⅱ. History

The shadow-play is mentioned very early in Chinese history. The great historian Sima Qian of Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) wrote about a man named Shaoweng who “revived” the emperor’s dead wife Wang for him while sitting behind a curtain and using “magic practices”.

In other anecdotes from the Tang Dynasty, which we can read in the “Fragments from the Northern Dream Lake” of Beimeng Suoyang and in the “Lost Stories for the Emperor” of Gao Yanxiu, there is the first mention of a candle as the light source.

The first historically explicit description of the shadow-play is to be found in the Song Dynasty in the book “About the Origin of Things” by Gao Cheng. He wrote, that in the time of Emperor Renzong (1023-1063) there were a lot of plays about the “Three Empires”. The first schools of shadow-players were founded, and the plays changed to a real professional theatre form. In the Song Dynasty the plays were mostly about historical topics.


Under the Mongolian emperors of the Yuan Dynasty, the shadow-play spread widely through the whole of China and to Central Asia and Southeast Asia, too.
In the Ming Dynasty, the topics of the plays changed to feature more Buddhist themes, often the stories were taken from the “Treasure Rolls” or Baoquan.


The height of the shadow-play was in the end of Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. It differed into regional flavours, the topics changed to more popular stories or novels, like “The Journey to the West” or “The White Snake”, which was a Beijing Opera, too. Because the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was a time of Manchurian domination, lots of the plays voiced social criticism about the foreign rulers, so the Manchurians reacted with suppression of the players.

After the Revolution in 1911, the shadow-play lost its significance, and the cinema took its place. Some of the Manchurian nobles sold the most beautiful sets to Europe or the U.S. So, in the “German Leather Museum” in Offenbach we find the most complete collection of old shadow-play figures, e.g. a whole set of the emperor Qianlong’s figures and another one of a Manchurian prince.

A wonderful film about the shadow-play of this time is director Zhang Yimou’s “Life” (Huozhe). He is from Xi’an, so the film has a strong Shaanxi taste.

The shadow-players had a very low social rank in old times and their successors to the third link were not allowed to take part in the imperial public service exams. In 1920 the Taiwanese government fixed a system of 18 social ranks, the players were No. 11, one rank worse than the prostitutes.

Today the shadow-play has been revived and carries a new cultural significance. In all big cities you can find theatres in different styles.

Ⅲ. Preparation of the Figures

The oldest figures were made of paper. Later, parchment was the widely used material. In the northeast parchment of donkey skin (Chagrin) was used, while in the West cow skin was more common. So the techniques of preparation were different.

The skin was watered and fixed onto a wooden or waxen board. Then the figures were cut out. After new watering and drying, the skin was burnished with so-called date wood knives. Then the fine intern pieces were cut out. The artist used knives of different shapes, but in the west hollow punches were in use because the cow skin was thicker and harder to cut. Then both sides of the figures were coloured with ink, and the pieces linked with strings of catgut (this is the difference to Indonesian figures, they are linked with horn buttons).

Ⅳ. Playing Techniques

The figures are moved by wooden or bamboo sticks, fixed on the limbs. The most important is the so called “life stick”, which leads the whole figure. The figures are pressed very closely against a screen; otherwise, the shadows would be blurred.


A skilled player can move up to four figures at a time. Up to five players are behind the screen, and they get a helping hand from their students and co-players. An “organiser” manages the entry of the instruments. In the second row, we see the musicians.


Traditionally, we have two sihu (four-string violin) and a sanxian (another kind of violin with three strings), a hulutou (a kind of clarinet made of a calabash), and a bamboo traverse flute. Not only do the musicians sing, but the players sing too. Mostly they memorise the whole text of the play, an achievement if you realise that most plays can last several hours!

Ⅴ. Topics

We find historical plays, lasting hours and hours, along with love and ghost stories, criminal stories, stories about wars and battles, Taoist legends, and mythological and humorous plays.

There are plays of social criticism and Beijing Opera topics like “The White Snake”, “The Journey to the West”, “The Generals of the House of Yang” or “The Investiture of the Immortals”. In Xi’an there are shadow-play theatres at:

ⅰ. 易俗大剧院 (Yìsú Dàjùyuàn) on North Avenue

ⅱ. “高家大院” (Gāojiā Dàyuàn) at the North Gate of Muslim Quarter (回民街) 144 号. Here the entrance is only 15 RMB

If you want to travel back in time and have an interesting evening like the Chinese nobles and common people had a hundred years ago, you will not regret engaging yourself with the shadow-play. But you should read the play first to learn the Chinese story, so you have enough time to concentrate on the tiny details.