Piyingxi, or Chinese shadow puppetry, is also called yingzixi(a play of shadow) or dengyingxi (a play of light and shadow) in Mandarin. It is a popular opera art among Chinese people. According to historical records, shadow puppetry has a profound legacy as it was born in Western Han Dynasty (202-8 AD), became popular in Tang Dynasty(618-907) and prevalent in Ming (1368-1644)and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, reaching West Asia and Europe in Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
Shadow puppetry is all about the projection of light. In lamp light, the shadow puppet looks crystalline and graceful, with the cut-out parts brighter than the rest, like a shallow relief sculpture. The most common shadow puppet is made from the skins of ox or donkey that have been specially treated for translucency. The amazing hands of artists create such a rich variety of carving patterns and lines, making the puppetry a folk art work that combine exquisite materials and wonderful techniques.
Shadow puppetry is also about intertwining images. The performers would hold joysticks in their hands that they would grab, grind, roll, and press to create flowing motions. The audience would see the profile of characters playing out the ups and downs of a story on a tiny curtain, which is precisely what the ancient called “a million soldiers in two hands.”
Shadow puppetry is a spring of sounds. Some would say that it was the rudiment for talkies, as in a shadow puppetry show, performers tell their story in the locally popular tone with music instruments playing in the background. The singing, the talking, the movements and the stage fighting have to work seamlessly for the show to be perfect. The performer who sings and talks is called a Qiansheng (the primary vocal), who must polish his or her tones and pronunciation to the uttermost, and be proficient in playing instrument and singing a song.
Shadow puppetry is a fusion of colors. The coloring is an essential step in making a shadow figure. The favorite colors are the pure ones, and the “five traditional colors” are a motto to follow. The most used ones in practice are red, green and black, as yellow is the original color of the skins, and the light leaked through the cut-outs is naturally white. This is how the folk artists apply the right techniques based on different materials.
“A meter of raw silk as the stage, ten fingers are all it takes to engage; by the window in the moonlight, a show of two palms is such delight.” The harmonious co-existence of sounds, colors, light and shadow makes shadow puppetry a colorful addition to Chinese people’s leisure time. An artistic container of opera, literature, folklore, history, religion and art, it is revitalized in the modern-day ambience with movies and design.