Chinese Shadow Puppets

Originally Published in 1933

View PDF

ON March eighteenth the Junior Members of the Museum were entertained by a performance of Chinese Shadow Puppets. This unique form of entertainment represents a very old art in China, for shadow puppets were first given there in 121 B. C. There are many legends about the manner in which they originated, the most prevalent of which is this: An emperor had lost his favorite wife. He grieved for her so much that he finally called the wizards of his court and demanded that they bring her back to life. A wave of spiritualism was sweeping over China at that time, so that his demand did not seem so unreasonable to him. The wizards, however, were nearly in despair until one picked up a piece of fish-skin parchment and cut out an exact image of the emperor’s favorite. That evening they showed her to the emperor from behind a screen. He was delighted, for he thought that he was actually seeing the one he loved, and rewarded the wizards with high rank.

For several hundred years, the puppets were used by story tellers who went from village to village, telling news of current happenings and illustrating their talks with puppets. When the drama became popular in China, the puppets took on a more dramatic form and every town that boasted of a theatre also had its puppet theatre.

Plate XI — Wedding, Procession from ‘The Legend of the Willow Plate,’ Given by the Red Gate Shadow Puppets

The art of making the puppets was known to only a few families, who handed the secret down from father to son, and today there are not many left in China who know the art. The puppets used by the Red Gate Shadow Puppets and shown at the Museum entertainment are made by an old man and his son in Peiping, who spend their summers at work in the rice fields and the winters at their puppet art in the city. The puppets are made of donkey skin parchment, very delicately carved and colored with a transparent lacquer. Performances are given by a few wandering companies, who for the payment of a small fee, will give a performance in the courtyard of a home or will entertain the guests at a restaurant.

The shadow theatre has been carried from China to other countries and became especially popular in Java, where performances may be seen more generally today than in China. No other country, however, has succeeded in reaching the high state of perfection in this art that the Chinese have attained. Java has approximated it in the beauty of detail and carving of figures, but no others have worked out the details of the jointing that produce the graceful and charming motions which are so similar to those used by Chinese actors of today.

The Red Gate Shadow Puppets have endeavored to preserve the naïve charm of the Chinese performance in their productions. They dramatize Chinese legends, fables, some parts of the old Chinese shadow plays, and also show some scenes in China, as it is today. They also reproduce the Chinese performance, which is always accompanied by a three-piece orchestra, by giving all of their programs a musical background. In the performance at the Museum this was handled by one man, who took the part of composer, violinist, flutist, drummer, and, in short, the entire orchestra.

Cite This Article

"Chinese Shadow Puppets." Museum Bulletin IV, no. 3 (April, 1933): 83-85. Accessed July 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to