The Art of Chinese Storytelling

Although Chinese Film hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm, opinion on their progress of the art has been said to improve. The extent to how much of an improvement they have made on this topic however, appears to be a controversial one. It is undeniable that, just like everything else in China, the movie industry too, has started to grow.  English Critic Tony Ryan is rather optimistic in his opinion and states that “A dozen of the world’s most innovative and exciting films made anywhere in the world in the last few years have come from China”. Despite the fact that Chinese film is often criticized for its hollow characters, lack of realism and depth. Now, even some of those who are sceptical of the level of China’s progress in this industry, such as Linda Jaivin from the Australian National University admits that “Chinese film has been receiving greater international recognition”.  However, there was a time when Chinese innovation combined with cultural aesthetic made China the pioneer of a different form of entertainment.

In the early 19th century the legend has it that distraught with the death of one of his concubines due to illness, Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty stopped caring for the affairs of the state. To comfort the Emperor, the concubine Wang, was in the words of the historian Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E – 220 C.E) ‘revived’ for him using ‘magic practices’. These ‘practices’ were the art of Shadow play. Shadow play, or shadow puppetry involves very detailed, transparent and usually jointed figures performing before of a lit background.  Using donkey hide, the concubine’s joints were animated using 11 separate pieces of the leather, and decorated with painted clothes. Her shadow was made to move using an oil lamp ultimately ‘bringing her to life’.

The Chinese name for ‘Shadow Puppet’ is “pi ying” meaning ‘shadows of hides of leather’. The Puppets themselves are very difficult to make. It requires great skill and craftsmanship. The puppets were originally made of paper. Later they were made from the hides of donkeys or oxen.
Carving the figures is very intricate: using a knife, to hollow out the face and carve delicate detail into the body. The face in particular requires an ‘out-line’ as thin as wire. The body can be engraved with many patterns, shapes and symbols.

The Characters usually have exaggerated features for the practicality of identifying them. Costumes and faces in particular, were made to be very memorable and detailed. The type of character being portrayed is made apparent by his/her mask. Similar to the masks in Beijing Opera, red represents honour and righteousness; black signifies loyalty whereas white denotes deceit. Heroic and likeable figures have long narrow eyes, small mouth and a straight nose. On the other hand the villains have small eyes, jutting forehead and drooping mouth. The Clown or humorous character has circles around their eyes. The figures were treated more like sculptures, pieces of art. So many delicate details and designs are crafted into them. One puppet alone can undergo up to 24 processes and over 3000 incisions. The leather is usually painted with bright colours but is transparent, usually black, red, yellow and green.

Shadow Play became very popular as early as the Song Dynasty. Holidays became a time renowned for them.  The art is still alive today and is still found in many provinces and regions including the Huan Xian County, where Daoqing shadow play originated, in northwest Gansu Province. There are many different types of shadow puppetry, Daoqing is performed by one person who controls all the figures and also conducts the orchestra. Chinese shadow puppetry has been performed in many European countries and also in America and Canada. The Huanxian County Shadow Play Troupe has presented 50 shoes in 20 cities including Venice, Milan, Rome and Florence since 2005.

Catherine yi-yu Cho Woo claims that “…the Chinese cinema has become an exciting, new artistic medium that preserves and extends Chinese cultural patterns”. Although many people argue this is not true and that as China rapidly modernises, it is also westernising, and losing its culture and heritage, the simple fact that the art of shadow play has existed for over 2000 years and still does to this day, proves that perhaps certain things cannot be lost so easily.

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