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Striving to keep ancient art form alive

Updated: Dec 8,2014 9:18 AM

Shadow play has a long history that can be traced back 2,000 years. Using flat puppets to entertain and tell stories, the art form has sunk into relative obscurity with the rise of modern technology. But in some corners of China, artists are striving to keep it alive.

On screen is an abstraction of Chinese legend A Journey to the West, performed by Chen Xueyue.

All over the walls of her shop hang hundreds of shadow puppets, precious antiques from centuries ago.

“The rooster up there is the most intact shadow puppet made in Tang Dynasty (618-907), displaying a very vivid image of it pecking,” she said.

Records show the art appeared during the Warring States Period, over two thousand years ago. It prospered during the Tang Dynasty and peaked in the Song Dynasty. Artists manipulate the puppets behind the lighted screen, singing about tales and legends.

The art form spread across all parts of the country.

“This puppet’s phoenix robe originated in Fengtian, of Shenyang. It has been well known for about 300 years,” she said.

But over the past decades, the shadow puppets have been relegated to history. Their colors have faded, their stories have gone untold.

What makes Chen even sadder is that people’s interest in the traditional art has vanished. Shadow play has been present all through her life.

“My grandfather was a shadow play artist and all these shadow puppets were my childhood toys. In 1999, he was diagnosed with cancer. My mother and other relatives of her generation didn’t want to learn the art. Then I looked at my grandfather and asked him to teach me,” she said.

And so the tradition was passed on to her. In the following 15 years she learned shadow puppet making and performing, traveling around the country to learn from masters. But she still feels she has a lot to learn.

“The snowflake carving is one of the most difficult skills in shadow puppet making. Normally, one can start in their sixth year,” she said.

The high level of expertise required, combined with waning public interest have spelled a death sentence for shadow play.

Chen says she is one of the very last shadow play artists in Shenyang.

During performances, she demonstrates how to make shadow puppets, hoping it can rouse interest in the art. She also tries to adapt the topic of her plays to the modern times.

In 2010, she performed a shadow play version of Kung Fu Panda in Cannes. Chen is determined to do everything possible to prevent shadow play from being forgotten.

“I want to keep a record of the all the crafts and knowledge of shadow play in Shenyang, illustrate it and inform people about it. I’ll try my best,” she said.