Sunday, January 5, 2014

The History of Shadow Puppetry

The History of Shadow Puppetry

Most historians believe shadow puppetry originated in China some 2,500 years ago, though the art certainly has its roots in many cultures throughout the world. It likely developed somewhat independently in other nations in the years following its birth in China. Cultural exposure was also likely a contributing factor, at least in the shadow puppetry of some locations in the world; however, the distinct difference in the manner in which the shadow plays are performed, as well as the subject matter they display in other countries, points even further toward independent origins. The story of the arts development is muddled with tragedy and romance. According to legend, the first shadow puppet was created to soothing the aching heart of the emperor Wu Han. His most beloved concubine died from a sudden illness and the emperor dropped into a deep and lasting depression. He lost interest in life and began to neglect all his leadership duties.

His advisers made every effort to console Wu Han but in spite of their attempts, nothing brought the man back from his sorrowful living grave. That is, until one of the finest artists in the land created a shadow puppet of his beloved. It was constructed from donkeyhide leather and made in such a way as to make it possible to mimic the movements of a living person.

The artist set up an illuminated silk screen and performed puppetry with the concubines likeness, creating the first shadow theater performance. The story goes that the artist even spoke in the cadence and tone of the deceased woman, stirring the Emperor from his depression and refocusing him on continuing in life.

Though the historic accuracy of this tale has never been proven, it has become the most well known story of the origins of shadow theater in China. The spread of the art from China to other areas of the world is believed to be in large part due to Mongol influence. The belief is that the conquering Mongols commonly enjoyed shadow puppetry performances in their tents in the evenings and that carried the art with them to other regions of the world in their conquests, reaching Persia, Arabia, and Turkey. Later, the tradition would take root in southern Asia and eventually would establish a hold in nearly every area of the world.

India has one of the longer traditions in shadow puppetry, with the art reaching prominence in the 1500s. The reign of King Kona Bhuda Reddy is a period of particular growth in India. Indian puppeteers during this period used some of the largest puppets known in history.

Taiwanese shadow plays were very popular during the 15th and 16th centuries and the tradition has remained prominent today. The puppets used in Taiwan are between eight and 12 inches in height and made of leather. More than 300 shadow play scripts, dating as far back as the 14th and 15th century, are among the countries cultural treasures.

The shadow puppetry of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia continues to thrive today. All of these countries have a long tradition of shadow theater, with performances occurring at social gatherings, religious ceremonies, and unique entertainment events. In all three counties, the puppets are made of leather, as in the Chinese tradition.

The Turkish tradition of shadow theater can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. Many historians believe that Ottoman Shadow puppetry may have potentially arisen from Egyptian heritage rather than exposure to the Chinese art. There is no definite proof either way though.

Todays Turkish and Greek shadow puppetry is credited to the historical Ottoman shadow theater. The original Ottoman characters and plays were adapted to the language and culture of Greece in the 1800s. Greek shadow theater continues to be popular today.

French Shadow puppetry began in the mid1700s after French missionaries brought the practice back from China. The first shadow puppetry was performed in 1767 in Paris and Marseilles. As with each country in which the art appears, it was adapted to the local culture and customs, giving it a strong foothold in the history of French theater.

The advent of modern forms of entertainment has been a powerful force in the decline of shadow theater in popular culture. At one time in many parts of the world, the art was highly valued and shadow plays were commonplace. The emergence of television is credited with the decline of shadow puppetry in Greece. Movie theaters and television are also responsible for its drop in popularity in France and Turkey.

While shadow theater is not as popular as it once was, and plays are not commonly performed in as many locations, it is still a well appreciated art. Modern performances are highly valued and held in theaters across the globe. The importance of shadow plays in Asian culture is still very apparent, and they remain common in everyday life in many countries throughout the region.

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