Pingjiang Shadow Play

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"It is rare to see such a wonderful performance!"Deng Qingquan was touched when he chanced upon a traditional shadow play in Changshou Town of Pingjiang County, Yueyang City. Deng is the Deputy Secretary General of the Yueyang Folk Artist Association, and his trip this time was to collect data about this folk art form. "The folk art in Yueyang, in its entirety, is especially amazing owning to Pingjiang shadow play",he said.



Shadow play spread from Liuyang to Pingjiang during late Ming and early Qing dynasties and flourished throughout urban and rural areas rapidly. In recent years, though diversified modern entertainments pose threat to diminishing traditional folk arts, shadow play is still alive with great fan following among the masses, when some other folk arts have declined.


Present: Shadow play troupes can be found around all villages and towns in Pingjiang


A folk artist makes shadow play props.


Li Xuxian, an inheritor of Pingjiang shadow play, has a rather busy schedule these days. Just finished with his performance in Jiuling Village in Changshou Town, Li received an invitation from Wu's family in another Village. After several days rest, he will give successive performance for over 40 evenings. When talking about shadow play, this 72-year-old artist seems energetic, and not at all exhausted.



According to Pingjiang's custom, villagers pray in temples for a good harvest before the busy season in spring. In the harvest season in autumn, shadow play troupes will be invited to perform, indicating gratefulness to the blessings of god. Li said, "We are also invited to perform at marriages, birthdays, housewarming gatherings£¿ It is popular among local households to invite shadow play troupes to their home to entertain important guests.

50-year-old Fang Shunli has committed himself to shadow play for over a decade. He finds pleasure in "building body and meanwhile earning some money",as he said.


There are various folk arts in Pingjiang County, among which the shadow play has been preserved well. Over 100 shadow play troupes including nearly 300 performers are active around various villages and towns in Pingjiang.


Difficulties: Receptive audiences are seldom found.

Shadow play is a form of storytelling drama which uses flat articulated figures (puppets made out of hide or paper) to create the impression of moving humans under lamplight. It is a comprehensive art form, which requires the player to be skilled in playing percussion instruments, wind instruments, string instruments, as well as singing and making puppets. The roles in shadow play are similar to Baling Drama and Hunan Opera, with Sheng (male), Dan (female), Jing (painted face), Mo (old male) and Chou (clown) as main leads and Qing Tune and Suona Tune as two operatic tunes. "The audience who can really understand and appreciate shadow play is very limited today",sighed Li. A performance is usually cut down to just one hour due to lack of viewers.




Formerly the shadow players used to give ceaseless performances all year round. They constantly created new shows based on historical legends, folktales and local anecdotes, so that the repertoires never repeated. Some were even capable of giving performances without repetition for 3 years. According to the statistics in 1984, there have been 1280 shadow plays in Pingjiang, including comedy, tragedy and serious drama, in the form of whole play, play highlights and multi-part series.



Just a few series like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Legend of Deification are relatively attractive to audiences, Li states.


A shadow play troupe only consists of 3 to 5 members. They take portable props and put up bamboo-framed stage anywhere, maybe in front of a small temple or outside of a farmhouse. According to Li, they earn just 200 yuan an evening conventionally, so they often perform with only 3 players in order to save cost.


Most of the players in shadow play troupes are elders aged 60 to 70, with very few young people. Li has 4 apprentices, 2 of which have gone. "Young people today are not willing to devote themselves to this."


Future: To inherit and promote the treasure of folk arts

How to balance innovation and inheritance, so as to comply with economic development of the cultural market and make the shadow play receptive to more people? That is the question.


In 1996, the original play "the Gold Button" by Li Xuxian won silver prize in the Selected Performance of Shadow Play throughout Hunan Province. In 1999, CCTV shot a special report on Li Xuxian and his shadow play troupe in the TV series "Cultural Tour in the Countryside", and since then Pingjiang shadow play has been staged in modern media more frequently. This year, Pingjiang Shadow Play has been declared provincial intangible cultural heritage. "The shadow play always reminds me of my childhood every time I watch it; it gives me new cognition",said Deng Qingquan, "the puppets in a shadow play are hand made by the players."


Deng hopes the government will give more moral support and encouragement to the shadow players, and research more on the shadow play, so as to propagate and further develop this traditional art.



A major difficulty is the lack of inheritors, said Zhong Sihai, principal of the Intangible Cultural Heritages Protection Center of Pingjiang County. A shadow play training course is expected to be organized next year, and related policies will be drawn then to attract young people, so as to enhance the quality of shadow play and inherit and promote this treasure of folk arts.


Today, some shadow play troupes in Meixian Town innovatively introduced changeable vocal music into conventional percussion instrument-based performance, making use of stereo equipment and electronic screen, which enriches the traditional shadow play greatly.