Shedding light on Chinese shadow puppetry

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As the powerful singing voice of 71-year-old Liu Aibang echoes across the classroom, students manipulate shadow puppets with rods, making them step onto the "stage" — a translucent cloth screen illuminated from behind.

Those sitting in front of the stage play music on gongs, drums, suona horns and other instruments.

This is a Daoqing shadow puppetry class at Longdong University in northwest China's Gansu Province. Aside from Liu, the 30-plus performers of the show are all college students with an average age of around 20.

Originating in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), Daoqing shadow puppetry in Gansu is an important branch of Chinese shadow puppetry and has been included in the national intangible cultural heritage list since 2006.

Losing its shine

Hailing from Huanxian County, the hometown of Daoqing shadow plays, Liu has been performing shadow puppetry for 57 years. The farmer began learning the craft from his father when he was 14. Over the past decades, he has mastered special techniques such as folk singing and the ability to play various musical instruments.

For years, shadow plays were welcomed by audiences of all ages in rural China, and were staged for every major occasion. However, with films and television series gradually becoming major sources of entertainment in the late 1980s, the art's popularity waned and many performers moved on to other jobs.

As more young people left the villages, Liu faced the problem of finding people to whom he could pass the tradition, an issue faced by other guardians of heritage.

"I missed those days when people didn't have smart phones, iPads or computers, and we were crowded with audiences during the whole show," Liu said.

Faced with the choice between protecting this artistic heritage and making a decent living, he chose to stay on, continually improving his techniques to shoulder the entire troupe's work alone.

Regaining glory

The turnaround came in 2020 when he received a phone call from Zhao Zhixue, head of the music school at Longdong University.

Zhao told him that the school was going to introduce Daoqing shadow puppetry into college classrooms and invested in textbook compilation, talent training and repertoire innovation to promote the inheritance of the art.

"We want to develop young students' long-term interest in intangible cultural heritage, so that some of them may choose to become practitioners of traditional art in the future," said Zhao.

Thrilled by the news, Liu dropped his farmwork and became a part-time teacher at the college. He came to school twice a week, conducting a two-hour class each time.

One of Liu's favorite students is 20-year-old Zhang Liang, who has become the main puppeteer of the show after two years' practice. An innovative shadow puppet show named "The First Shot in Longyuan," which was performed by Zhang and her classmates, won a provincial literature and art award last year.

Zhang believes learning shadow puppetry can help her better understand traditional Chinese culture and folk art. If possible, she would like to become a music teacher and impart this knowledge to her students.

"The next generation shouldn't miss out on these precious and beautiful arts," she said.

Not just surviving, but thriving

At present, the university offers students a variety of courses related to shadow puppetry. Qiu Qi, a 21-year-old junior student at the school of fine arts, took a course titled "Shadow Puppet Sculpture and Coloring."

She saw her first shadow puppet show 13 years ago and found the "leather dolls" cute and smart. But she never dreamt that one day she would wield a knife and make shadow puppets on her own.

"I like the color and layout of shadow puppets, and the sculpture artworks of the puppet masters inspire me a lot," she said.

In recent years, more forms of intangible cultural heritage, including shadow puppetry, have emerged from the shadows into the modern era.

Last year, China authorized Tianjin University to grant the country's first interdisciplinary master's degree in intangible cultural heritage studies. It marked a new stage in the cultivation of related talent, and a shift in the preservation of China's intangible cultural heritage, from mere "rescuing" to more scientific approaches.

Liu hopes to continue at the college and train more young people in the field.

"Just as true love is not a one-man show, the preservation and inheritance of cultural heritage requires efforts from both the old and young generations," Liu said.

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