Shadow Plays

Shadow plays are a folk art originated in rural areas of northwest China's Gansu, Shannxi and Ningxia provinces. Such art was popular between 14th and 19th Century, which is the Ming and Qing Dynasty in China. Figures used in the play look pretty and charming and carving technique requires high skill.

The material used for shadow plays is the skin of the ox. People choose those skin which is durable and soft with just the right thickness. People first clean and dry the skin. Then they draw the outline on the skin and carve it. Then they put it in water to add color and take it out to iron it, which is the most difficult yet important step. Lastly, the skin is dried and bound together for performance.

The two figures in the picture are the supreme deity of Taoism and the Lao-tzu by Taoists. Craft of the Lao-tzu by Taoists are complicated and the figure can be moved flexibly. The main colors used are red, yellow, black and green. Yet the figure can display more subtle colors with complicated patterns.

The supreme deity of Taoism has long and thin eyes, small mouth and steep bridge of the nose, giving people an impression that he is mild and generous. The Lao-tzu by Taoists has round eyes, flat nose and pointed forehead, looking to be energetic and vital.

Shadow plays emphasize on performing. By moving every part of the body while matching with inspiring strains of songs, the whole plays display strong local characteristics.

Shadow plays in the Gansu province produce list of plays. The picture depicts a story in the Sui and Tang dynasty. The figures and stage prop are carefully carved so that one can't help thinking the play must be interesting. Bright colors are used for decoration and different parts of the body are properly organized for performing skilfully.

The shadow plays in northwest China's Shaanxi province keep the form of story telling. It is the predecessor of the many existing local operas.


Simple figures and exquisite handicraft are its two features. People draw lines to depict the general figure. Most part of the figures is pierced, with the non-pierced part serving as complementary to each other. For different parts, the figure, stage prop and background, different patterns are used. The play looks beautiful for each detailed part and general design. They look elaborated without too much complexity, simple without being empty.

In the picture shown, the main figure is eye catching both in color and decoration.

Shadow plays in north China's Shanxi province are similar to those in Shaanxi in terms of its artistic feature and crafting skill. People draw lines to decorate the tiny parts since they are difficult for knives to pierce. The colors used are mostly bright red, green and apricot that are produced by artisans themselves. These colors can last for a long time.

In south part of Shanxi province, various traditional patterns appeared on the figures and stage prop, patterns such as luck, wealth and longevity, five people winning, eight fairies congratulating for longevity, etc. Also many figures, which often appear in architecture, can be seen on the dress of the figure, patterns such as d character, wealth and longevity, etc.

The picture shows a lady doing make up in front of the mirror. When playing, it requires people to have the ability to display two figures in a harmonious way, person both inside and outside the mirror. The desk, chair and case are well decorated and the dress, desk and chair are carefully designed.