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A Folk Art

Chinese Leather Silhouette Art

The leather silhouette art is also called the leather silhouette show. It is a comprehensive folk art combining painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance and performance in one.

Legend has it that Emperor Wudi (156-87 B.C.) of the Western Han was depressed with the death of his favorite concubine Lady Li. To help him get over the sadness, an occultist sculptured a wooden figure in the likeness of the lady and projected its shadow on a curtain for the emperor to see, bringing him consolation with the belief that the shadow was her spirit. This has been thought to be the beginning of the shadow show.

Today's shadow puppets are made of leather instead of wood for the simple reason that leather is much lighter, easier to manipulate and carry around. During the performance, the "actors" are held close to a white curtain with their colored shadows cast on it by a strong light from behind. Moved by guiding sticks, they play the roles, accompanied by music, with their parts or singing done by the operators. The plays can be quite dramatic and, when it comes to fairy tales or kungfu stories, the "actors" may be made to ride on clouds or perform unusual feats, to the great enjoyment of the audience, especially children.