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Shadow Puppets

An Art Form Living in Shadows

China has always claimed to have introduced the concept of shadow puppetry. In fact, this ancient art form is part of this country's traditional puppet theater, which is composed of three varied divisions.

Aside from shadow puppetry, there is the "budaihsi" or the glove puppet theater and the kueileihsi" or the marionette theater.

The art of shadow puppetry itself is composed of five key features that combines together to form a distinct whole.

These are the theater; music, which involves the instrumental and vocal accompaniment; the literature, which is about the writing of the script; the handicrafts, which deals with the carving of the puppets; and the painting, which is concerned with the decoration of the puppets.

Originally starting as an entertainment feature for the Chinese emperor's pleasure dating back to over two thousand years ago, shadow puppetry did not really develop into an art until the beginning of the Sung Dynasty. From there, it underwent several improvements for over a period of more than one thousand years starting with the Northern Sung Dynasty and has been largely viewed as the predecessor of the present-day cinema. From Northern China, the art slowly spread throughout the whole region. Then, it was taken by the Mongol armies to Central Asia and spreaded further into Germany, France, and the neighboring countries of Europe.

As an art form, shadow puppetry involves intricate preparations. The puppets are elaborately designed, often handcrafted and are usually depictions of ancient princes, teachers, gods, kings, and demons. The puppet eyes are of two types: the narrow eyes, which are refined and elegant; and the wide eyes, which are more down-to-earth.

The puppets are also made to appear as capable of speaking in the native language of the region or country where the performances are given. They are basically flat, made of leather, and manipulated in such a way as to create interesting shadow patterns. Performances are usually done to the accompaniment of music and drama, with a blend of slapstick comedy and improvisations.

The puppet master himself, referred to in Indonesian puppet theater as the dalang, needs to be a multi-faceted man in order to be considered a master storyteller. He must be a good singer, a wood carver, a painter, a dancer, and a priest, all rolled into one. Additionally, he must speak several languages and adept at performing sacred rituals, which in Asian shadow puppetry, is a regular feature, it being a religious ceremony in the said parts.

For quite a while, the art of shadow puppetry experienced a massive decline in terms of popularity.

In some countries, the art is actually dead, largely due to the advent of modern visual art forms, notably the movies and television. However, shadow puppetry is slowly making a resurrection of sorts, especially in the last few years.

People in certain regions, specifically Asians, have begun to reconsider their priorities and have taken a renewed interest in their own local culture and values, especially those that were previously practiced by their ancestors.

Shadow puppetry has gladly benefited from such a renewal, giving this ancient art form the opportunity to touch the lives of modern-day audiences.


Please enjoy these free hand shadow puppets and learn interesting facts on shadow puppets. Learn to make hand shadow puppets and the history of making shadow puppets and hand puppets.Shadow puppets have a long history and lots of interesting shadow puppet and hand puppet facts exist. These free hand puppet examples are for you to try your hand at creating shadow puppets and hand puppets, and hopefully put on your very own shadow puppet show!

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Images and portions of the text by Henry Bursill and were originally published by Griffith and Farran in 1859.