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Bringing shadows to life

By Miao Jiayu and Owen Fishwick (chinadaily.com.cn)

Updated: 2017-01-19

Xue Hongquan from Huazhou district in Shaanxi province has spent his life in the shadows – and he loves it.


Xue, 49, is a shadow puppet maker and has spent the last 34 years creating and crafting exquisite puppets to be used behind brightly lit scrims across China.


Shadow puppetry (or piying in Chinese) has been practiced in the Middle Kingdom from as early as the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127).


Traditionally, shadow puppets were often made from animal hides which had been treated, carved, and colored. Using an array of tools, each figure is delicately crafted in fine detail, with such lengths gone to as to the fashioning of individual hairs. Xue says it often takes him up a month to complete a single puppet.


Bringing shadows to life

Xue Hongquan creates a puppet. [Photo/news.cnwest.com]

In order to achieve the versatile and often acrobatic movements from each work, the body parts are made individually before being joined together. The more joints a puppet has, the greater the range of movement. The final stage involves attaching wire and thin sticks for the puppeteers to control and then – lights up.


Xue says his latest work, a ballet dancer, has more joints than ever. “With the new joints, the puppets can accomplish all the movements of  a human being – this is innovation.”


Bringing shadows to life

A piying ballet dancer is manipulated on a translucent screen. [Photo/news.cnwest.com]


Held behind an illuminated scrim, puppeteers are able to recreate life-like movements, making the puppets walk, roll, dance, and tumble.


Though only lasting several minutes, shadow play shows are a complex operation, requiring careful design and cooperation between puppeteers. Unlike your standard puppet show, a shadow puppet can need as much as six puppeteers to perform all of its actions.


Bringing shadows to life

Puppet operators control the movement of the piying ballet dancer. [Photo/news.cnwest.com]


Xue says that nowadays he uses plastic to make his puppets as the material stronger and lighter and allows puppeteers to perform even more acrobatic stunts.


“Our fingers have to be super agile during the performance,” says Xue. “We have to remember every body movement and move in rhythm with the music.” Xue likens shadow puppetry to real life ballet, but even more difficult at times.


As a vital inheritor of such a treasured Chinese heritage, Xue says he intends on carrying on the tradition for as long as he can, and aims to encourage others to take up the craft.


Bringing shadows to life

Xue Hongquan displays an exquisitely produced puppet, one of the four most beautiful ladies in ancient China according to folklore. [Photo/news.cnwest.com]


Xue has provided free puppet carving training sessions for some 300 people, and has spoken at the Shanghai Shanghai Theatre Academy and Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts as a guest professor, explaining how to make shadow puppets.


Forever upholding tradition as well as innovating in his field, in November 2016 Xue successfully reproduced Michael Jackson’s moon walk on the scrim, creating quite a media buzz.

Bringing shadows to life

Shadows puppets fashioned to look like pop legend Michael Jackson. [Photo/news.cnwest.com]


Huazhou shadow puppetry was included in the first batch of the national intangible cultural heritage list in 2006. Thanks to Xue’s constant efforts to integrate traditions and modern elements, the ancient art form is thriving with vigor.

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