By Ye Chuanzeng
Shadow puppetry, also known as shadow play, is an ancient art form of storytelling and entertainment in China. It consists of handmade puppets moving behind a thin translucent curtain or screen inside a dark theatre.
Tengchong, a county-level city in southwest China’s Yunnan province, boasts a history of 600 to 700 years of shadow play.
Recently, an unusual shadow puppet show was staged there. Different from traditional shadow plays, it featured laser stage lighting, special acoustic and optic effects, as well as fluorescent puppets.
“I never thought that a shadow puppet show could be like this,” said a spectator after watching the show.
This innovation, which combines the traditional with the modern, is a result of the efforts made by Liu Yongzhou and his younger generations, who are inheritors of the intangible cultural heritage item from Liujiazhai, Gudong township of Tengchong.
Liujiazhai is known for its shadow puppet performance, and Liu Yongzhou is a fourth-generation inheritor of the art form.
According to statistics, Tengchong is home to around 300 to 400 shadow plays, and many of them are adapted from classical Chinese literature works such as The Journey to the West.
Known as “folk movie,” shadow play used to be a valuable form of entertainment for rural residents. They have instilled the fine traditions of Chinese culture in the residents.
However, shadow play troupes, which were once very popular, are somewhat over the hill nowadays.
“There are less and less people watching the plays, and we seldom have chances to perform. Many shadow play artists have gone out-of-town for work, and few young people want to learn this traditional art form,” said Liu Ankui, the son of Liu Yongzhou and a fifth-generation inheritor.
Therefore, revitalizing shadow play became a difficult task for Liu Chaokan, a sixth-generation inheritor.
The young man born in 1992 told People’s Daily that they developed new plays for children as well as sitcoms that integrate Tengchong’s local culture, and these new shadow plays are very popular.
Apart from the new plays, Liu Chaokan and the young team he leads also worked to turn the art form from something people watch to something people experience.
Making shadow puppets into cultural and creative products, they established a puppet-making workshop in the theater, where shadow puppet artists guide tourists to carve and color puppets. The workshop soon became a popular destination among tourists in Tengchong.
In addition, Liu Chaokan has moved shadow puppet plays from translucent curtains onto bigger stages. He made puppets from plastic boards and coated them with fluorescent powder. When these fluorescent puppets are lighted by UV blacklight, they become three-dimensional. With modern stage technologies and holographic projection, shadow puppet plays are made into “4D movies.”
Liu Chaokan spent four years developing 4D shadow puppet shows. The scriptwriting of the play Tengchong Stories alone took him two years.
Traditional shadow puppets are 70 to 80 centimeters tall. However, to perform on stage, they must be twice as large as this size. Therefore, Liu Chaokan recruited another 10 young actors so that it would be easier to move these huge puppets on stage.
The theater was packed when The Tengchong Stories was premiered. With a retractable stage, the scenes in the play were converted in an intelligent manner. Storylines taking place in indoor scenarios were still performed on traditional translucent curtains, as a tribute to older-generation shadow play artists.
Liu Shangjin, a senior shadow play artist, said after watching the 40-minute play that he was gratified to see such innovative development of the traditional art form.
“What has changed is the form of this art, but its connotation remains the same. Presenting traditional cultural heritage in a modern way will further vitalize our traditions,” Liu Chaokan said.