Chinese shadow puppets are made from the hides of sheep, donkeys, and oxen. The translucent hide is carved and painted with many different colors. For a performance, a paper or cloth scrim is set up, with lighting behind it. As the shadow puppets are manipulated behind the screen, they cast brightly colored shadows. The performance is accompanied by music, and may include small pyrotechnic devices for added effect. The leader of a puppet troupe is both a skilled carver of puppets and a masterful performer.

Chinese shadow puppetry is attested to in Song dynasty sources, as part of the many entertainments found in cities. The puppeteers were professionals, and the narratives they performed were often based on historical tales. With the blossoming of drama in the Yuan dynasty, shadow puppetry also gained a larger repertoire. In the Ming dynasty, the development of regional distinctions in shadow puppet styles and repertoire paralleled the growth of regional distinctions in opera and music.

What follows is a slide show of puppets from the late Qing. They represent different regional styles and a range of character types.

These shadow puppets are from the collection of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. They were photographed by Paul Macapia, Eduardo Calderón, and Laura Martin of the Seattle Art Museum.

index of images in the slide show