Main Stage, World Music

Chinese Shadow Puppetry: Exploring the 1,500-Year-Old Art Form

World-renowned master of the pipa Wu Man joins the brilliant Huayin Shadow Puppet Band at NEC’s Jordan Hall on March 25 for an afternoon of traditional Chinese music and other selections with shadow puppetry. Amid shouts and the strumming of lutes and fiddles, the percussion of clappers, small and large gongs, and the battering of a wooden bench, the band sings and plays about rural life in remote China, drawing the audience into places and sounds rarely heard in the West. Celebrity Series staffer Connor Buckley explores the rare Chinese Shadow Puppetry art form ahead of this highly anticipated performance.

By Connor Buckley
Photos Courtesy of Annie Katsura Rollins

When I first encountered Chinese Shadow Puppetry, I felt assaulted by overwhelming prettiness – there was color everywhere, and I loved it. How very Chinese, I thought, to stuff so much brightness and richness of color into a form with “shadow” in the name. Everything from the music to the puppets to the voices seemed to shimmer. I scoured the internet for photos and videos of this fabulously bombastic theater practice only to find that I was very quickly groveling for crumbs – very few people in the West seemed to have even heard of Chinese Shadow Puppetry, let alone found the will to trek through rural China in an effort to amass enough knowledge to spread the word about it.

Luckily, I found one person who had done just that, a scholar on the subject and a practicing artist and shadow puppeteer from Toronto named Annie Katsura Rollins. Her websites exploring the form, her travels, and her work were a great gift for me at the time, and I devoured all of the content dutifully with a sense that I’d use the information in the future. Well, the future is now, as they say.

Before writing this post, I was able to have a short but profitable chat with Annie to get her thoughts on this beautiful art form and to provide a kind of introduction for people like me who have never seen a performance of it. I asked her what she recommended we watch for. “I would love to remind the viewer just to enjoy and be okay in not knowing all of the context because there’s so much,” she said. She has a calm, clear, reassuring voice with a general tinge of Canada. “Regardless of where the form comes from, enjoy the colors and the shadows and the holistic aspect of the performance”. She reminded me, though, that “it is a form based in ritualistic practice,” and, while it is sometimes performed purely for entertainment, the majority of performances throughout its 1,500 year history have been connected in some way to ritual. It’s an association with art that Westerners may not be used to or immediately pick up on. Aspects of popular religions in China like Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are thematically prominent in the form, as are rituals more specific to the local communities and villages where the performances occur.

Of course, the specific rituals applied to performances will be as varied as the villages and the people who live in them – “it’s not a universal form,” Annie mentioned, but she noted a unifying factor. “The shadows were thought to be conduits between souls and spirits and often to the beyond. Sometimes they communicated to the gods and goddesses and the heavens, sometimes they connected to passed-on relatives or friends”. I was pleased at the word choice, immediately (if somewhat pretentiously) reminded of “God’s conduits” for John Donne, the ideas and people of the books surrounding him that have taken on lives and agency themselves beyond the lives of their authors. The shadows are the same – they themselves have immense symbolic power, more than just performance tools, more than just projections of puppets.

It’s an exciting system of art to think about, but excitement for this form is always tempered when you consider how quickly it’s disappearing. Politics, economics, and general lack of interest make it difficult for this mostly rural practice to survive. Though there are efforts to preserve the form on some level, preservation actually quickens the pace of the downward trend – Annie was unequivocal about this. What practitioners need is “an opportunity to innovate or experiment” as they’ve been doing continually for over a thousand years. Chinese Shadow Puppetry is a living art form and does not need to be preserved, but continued. This is really what the puppetry troupes across the country are interested in, anyway, said Annie.

“The main question would be can the masters transmit this practice to apprentices so that when they’re innovating they come from a deep place of knowing, not just the technical skills and the aesthetics, but a situated learning experience where they understand what this form has been doing within a community.” Unfortunately, “this is not happening,” she said.

Does she have hope? Annie told me this is the question she gets asked most often. “The form is so beautiful that I don’t think people will let it go quickly, so they’re going to find a way to let it survive in some way… I’m crossing my fingers, Connor.” When I remark about the inherent attraction that the puppets have to begin with, she speedily responded “And shadows…there’s something about that dwelling in darkness. It seems to be more attractive now as we inundate ourselves with light and chaos,” she said with an almost dramatic flair toward the end. We both laughed this comment off. The one certain thing is that while it’s here, it’s a beautiful art to explore.

Annie Katsura Rollins’ work can be found at the following sites:

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