Play of Shadows: Two Forms of Asian Shadow Theater and Their Descendants

Chengdu Shadow Play © monsterboox with CCLicense

Chinese Shadow Play
© monsterboox with CCLicense

In much of Asia there is a tradition of shadow theater, also called shadow puppetry or shadow play, an ancient art in which characters are fashioned from leather or paper and positioned between a light source and a translucent scrim. The audience watches the story unfold from the other side of the scrim.

There are many branches of shadow puppetry. One of the oldest is the pí ying xì of China, which has its origins in the royal court and features a whiter and more refined scrim than many of the other traditions. This allows for more radiant color to show through. Allegedly created to placate an Emperor who had lost his favorite concubine, the tradition contains a wide variety of stories: myths, histories, morality plays and animal fables. Pí ying xì was banned for a time under communist rule because it was seen as a vehicle for religion, but it never died out and is now seen as an art that is quintessentially Chinese. Music videos and animations like Su Yang’s Phoenix, which Synkroniciti has spoken about here, rely heavily on the style and images from this beautiful art form. Here is a short film from a series called Hello China, which will give you a playful taste of this glorious art.

Video via radio86channel on YouTube.

From China, the art form spread westward with the Mongols and, much later, with explorers who brought it to France, where it would be known as ombres chinoises, or Chinese shadows. These shows were performed at various locales, including the famous Le Chat Noir in Paris, and there are a number of such troupes still in existence today. This is Jean de la Fontaine’s fable of a frog who wants to be as big as an ox as told by Le Theatre des Ombres.  Hilarious and charming!

Video via letheatredesombres on YouTube.

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The Sacrifice of Bima, Balinese Wayang Kulit
© Gustavo Thomas with CCLicense

The Chinese tradition contrasts sharply with the rougher style which developed in Indonesia and Malaysia, known as wayang kulit, or shadow leather. The characters are much darker, truly looking like shadows due to a thicker, often yellowish, scrim and, sometimes, flickering torchlight. They can be easily identified by their fanciful faces, terrifying, ridiculous, or godlike, but never completely human. Their roots lie in the uneasy presence and influence of two religious traditions: the Hindu, with many gods and monsters, and the Islamic, which, in its most conservative forms, forbids the representation of human and animal face and form. These influences have contributed to the imaginative and non-representational of wayang. Here is a taste of traditional Javanese wayang from the Théâtre du Soleil at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, Paris. The gamelan accompaniment is quite raucous, but certainly holds the attention. I doubt anyone could sleep through a performance like this.

Video via maisonculturesmonde on YouTube.

Although television is eclipsing shadow puppetry as an entertainment in urban areas, the characters remain important. Recent campaigns for health and wellness and a promotion for Vicks cough drops in Indonesia have translated these images into animation. Figures created over centuries of tradition are familiar and trustworthy in the light of urbanization and technological advances.

Balinese shadow puppets  © Howard Walfish with CCLicense

Balinese shadow puppets
© Howard Walfish with CCLicense

The contemporary art of shadow dance theater has also been influenced by the images of wayang kulit, as is revealed by this wonderful shadow dance performance from Indonesia, telling stories from the Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The first concerns the birth of the Pandavas, heroic brothers born from Pandu, who was cursed for killing a white stag who was a wizard in disguise, and his two wives Kunti and Madri. The second is the birth of the hero Gatot kaça, or Jug Head, a story which implies the dangers of war. The last is about the twins, Nakula and Sadewa, and protecting nature from evil. Incredibly beautiful, this is an exciting blending of styles. Traditional art is wonderful of itself, and certainly worth preserving, but the evolution of art keeps it alive for the future and allows for new avenues and new voices to flourish. Impressive!

Video via Jhonatan Aitan on YouTube.

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