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Shadow play and image artistry
Huo Jianying

The art of cinematically conveying light and images emerged in China just one century ago. But the Chinese fascination with light and shadow began much earlier.
Chinese ancients regarded anything illuminant -- either on terra firma or in the heavens -- as sacred, and its image and shadow as mystical. Great Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai's famous verse, "My glass upheld, I invite the Moon/And three of us with my shadow we form," reflects his romantic style, and also the ancient belief that form and shadow are inalienable components of the physiological being.
During the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago, a necromancer staged a shadow play, named "Soul Evocation." It so enchanted the audience that it became a legend in the process of being retold. The play was based on a true love story and given an ethereal touch through the necromancer's use of light and shadowy images. The legend was later included in the Son Shen Ji (Stories of kninortals), a collection of strange tales about deities, spirits and demons by Gan Bao of the Jin Dynasty (265-420).
The Earliest Shadow Play: Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty, named Liu Che (156-87 B.C.), was a great, epoch-making ruler, but nonetheless prey to earthly sorrows. Emperors of the Han Dynasty were noted for their harems of concubines. There were as many as 18,000 in the imperial palace during the reign of Liu Che. Few, however, gained access to his bed, and even fewer won his true affection. Madam Li was the exception. Upon entering the palace, she became the emperor's constant companion. Madam Li was intelligent as well as beautiful. Her brother was an official in charge of court dancers and musicians, and in her early years at court she would often display her dancing and singing talent.
The emperor's favourite became very ill while still young, and though he came to her bedside several times, she would not allow him to see her. On the last occasion she hid under the quilt saying softly, "Forgive me Your Majesty, but I dare not show you my face. Illness makes my visage unfit to behold. My dress is improper, my hair is undressed and my face unwashed. I beg Your Majesty to concentrate on state affairs. Please express your concern for me by taking good care of our son and my family members." Madam Li died soon after uttering these words. It was her wish to leave the emperor with the memory of her as healthy and beautiful, but Liu Che deeply regretted not having seen her in person after illness had forced her to take to her bed.
Liu Che gave his beloved an empress's funeral, and instructed court artists to paint her portraits according to the image he kept of her in his mind's eye. He had paintings of her hung in his palace and would gaze at them all night, sometimes missing his morning audience. His ministers were becoming increasingly concerned until word came of a necromancer named Li Shaoweng from Shandong Province, who claimed he could evoke the soul and image of Madam Li for the emperor. Upon being brought to the palace Li Shaoweng set up two tents of white gauze on a piece of open ground within the palace. He told the emperor that upon entering one tent at midnight, he would see Madam Li in the other. Upon following Li's bidding, the emperor saw the other tent light up and a woman's image appear behind the white gauze. She sat, stood, and walked around, identical in every aspect of figure and manner to Madam Li. Utterly convinced, the emperor stood up and called his beloved's name' and was about to step out of his tent when the image of his love vanished. Liu Che was so affected that he wrote a poem to Madam Li and asked his court musicians to set it to music and play it for him. This event has been referred to more than once in Han Dynasty official records.
History: There are different explanations as to how the necromancer Li Shaoweng enchanted Emperor Wudi into believing that the image he saw was indeed that of his dear departed love. Some say he used a puppet made of special materials, others that he used a leather-made silhouette of a human figure. But the version most widely believed is that Li Shaoweng used lighting techniques and a real woman to create a "shadow play." Shadow imagery was actually a commonplace technique within folk culture that had been practised prior to the Han Dynasty. The series of images created by deft hands shadowed against a light were known as "hand shadow plays." According to Han Dynasty historical records, this simple form of entertainment originated in court handmaidens cutting leaves into the shapes of human figures and animals and casting their shadows on a window, to amuse imperial offspring. It was the likely forerunner to shadow play, in which fine leather silhouettes were the principal performers.
China entered a period of chaos and successive power shifts during the 300 years that followed the downfall of the Han Dynasty. Shadow plays all but disappeared until the seventh century, when China entered the Tang Dynasty, commonly acknowledged as its Golden Age. It is recorded that Emperor Gaozong and Princess Taiping of the Tang Dynasty performed shadow plays in the imperial palace, using these silhouetted images as a cathartic means of expressing what troubled their minds.
It was not until the succeeding Song Dynasty of the 10th century, however, that shadow play became an accepted theatrical form and entered the cultural lives of the common people. Song historical documents mention shadow play performances, their themes, how they were performed and the audience response. There were many professional performance troupes, some theater-based and others Fthat performed on the street or in private homes. On holidays and festivals, makeshift shadow play performance venues would be set up on streets large and small to capacity audiences, come rain, snow or shine. This kind of street entertainment was the advent of film.
Overseas cinematography researchers suggest that China's ancient shadow play presaged the modern cinematographic techniques of lighting, backdrops, mobile images, and special effects. Despite shadow play being little more than a series of images created by projected light, it was considered a legitimate form of theater by virtue of its ease of adaptability to folk opera. Other than the main distinguishing feature of leather shadow puppets rather than flesh and blood performers, the plots. music and singing styles were the same as those of live folk opera, the leather shadow puppets themselves being modeled on folk opera characters.
The popularity of shadow play is in some way attributable to the lightness and easy mobility of its equipment, the small company of performers and the flexibility of its performance venue. In its early days, a troupe had no more than six or seven members that comprised a main singer who could emulate different voices, and two musicians - one that played stringed and wind instruments for civilian settings and another that played percussion instruments for martial scenes. Performers were called 'Vixian," or "string pullers." A troupe usually had two, but sometimes only one tixian to work these silhouetted figures, and occasionally accompany the main singer. A master string puller could manipulate several puppets simultaneously.
Shadow plays were mostly based on legends, folk tales and fables, although some were original. Performances, as in folk opera, consisted of play highlights, complete plays, and episodes of early soap opera. Shadow play and the leather actors were particularly adored by children for being so much more evocative of magic and mystery than folk opera ever could be, performed as it was by merely mortal players.
Creation of an Art: Shadow play was popular in Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Zhejiang, Liaoning and Beijing, each place distinctive as regards the materials used to make puppets and their characterisation. But the biggest difference was in singing style, due the close kinship of shadow play to folk opera. Paper and silk were originally used to make silhouettes, but cow, sheep and donkey hide (said to be the best for its transparency and durability) were found to be more suitable. Processing a hide to the required degree of transparency was, however, a painstaking process. It needed to be soaked in water for several days before being cleaned and every vestige of fat and flesh scraped off. The resultantly fine, transparent sheet was then stretched over a wooden frame and left to air in the shade. Patterns nailed to the sheet were cut out of it, painted, ironed and coated in protective oil. Finally, the silhouettes were assembled, sewn at the joints and affixed with Pulling strings and sticks.
Silhouette puppets are in themselves works of art. They incorporate folk painting and papercuts, and through the adoption of realistic and abstract approaches embody distinguishable character traits appropriate for shadow performances. Shadow puppets consist of upper and lower bodies, legs, arms. hands and interchangeable heads. Any shadow play troupe prop box Would contain more than 1,000 different heads to fit 200-300 bodies. Heads arc either full-face or in profile with exaggerated features in order to achieve a better two-dimensional effect.
Fortunately for the many contemporary shadow puppet collectors, these leather silhouettes are hard wearing. Some collections include puppets from the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are reports that a traditional arts rescue project has been established to conserve the art of shadow puppet making, along with shadow play itself, as both are now listed as "endangered art forms." —CHINA TODAY