Great name for a conspiracy/suspense thriller, right? Shadow puppets are a venerable art form that dates back to China over 2,000 years ago. However, the introduction of shadow puppets to Western audiences is a pretty recent event. Many people are still unsure what shadow puppets are all about. Well, class is in session, pull up a seat.
Shadow puppets were started over 2,000 years ago in China after a mistress of the Chinese emperor died unexpectedly. The emperor was so distraught and forlorn that he brought together his court and demanded that they bring her back to life. While this emperor may have had a screw or two loose, his court was able to devise an ingenious situation that not only pleased their master but allowed them to keep their heads.
The courtiers used leather pieces and painted clothing to create a facsimile of the concubine and then manipulated her image against firelight to bring her shadows back to life. Now, the emperor, despite his questionable mental state, allowed the courtiers to keep their lives and was so pleased by this display he became a patron of the early art of shadow theatre.
Shadow puppetry today is a bit more refined and is widely popular in China, Japan, Taiwan and certain parts of Europe. Essentially a large canvas screen separates the audience from the performers. This screen is lit from the front, allowing shapes held up to it to shine through but preventing the shadow of the performer from bleeding through.
As mentioned before, shadow puppets are still new to U.S. shores and performances of this Asian inspired art form are few and far between. This has led to shadow puppet performances having the dubious distinction of being pretentious or artsy-fartsy. Nevertheless, the popularity of these performances are growing and it is only a matter of time before a shadow puppet troupe appears in or near your town.
It may seem silly, but these performances are very well done and well orchestrated. Puppets, outside of the Muppets, don’t get a lot of love these days but the revival of shadow puppets is putting this art form back on the map.