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Chinese Shadow Plays

More than 2000 years ago, Wu Emperor's favourite concubine of the Han Dynasty died of illness; the emperor missed her so much that he lost his desire to reign. One day, a minister happened to see children playing with dolls where the shadows on the floor were vivid. Inspired by this scene, the smart minister hit upon an idea. He made a cotton puppet of the concubine and painted it. As night fell, he invited the emperor to watch a rear-illuminated puppet show behind a curtain. The emperor was delighted and took to it from then on. This story was recorded in an official history book and is believed to be the origin of Chinese shadow plays.

Shadow puppets were first sculptures made of paper and later from the hides of donkeys or oxen. That's why the Chinese name for shadow puppet is 'pi ying', which means 'shadows of hides'. Shadow puppetry was very popular during the Tang and Song Dynasties in many parts of China.

The stage for shadow puppet shows is a white cloth screen on which the shadows of flat puppets are projected. Shadow puppets look similar to paper cut-outs except that their joints are connected by thread so that they can be operated freely.

Nicknamed 'business of the five', a shadow puppet troupe is made up of five people; one operates the puppets, one plays a horn, a suo-na horn and a yu-kin, one plays banhu fiddle, one is in charge of percussion instruments, and one sings. The philosophy of shadow puppetry is as follows: one mouth tells stories of thousands of years; a pair of hands operates millions of soldiers. Shadow puppetry wins the heart of an audience through its lingering music, exquisite sculpture, brisk colour and lively performance.