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Qing-Dynasty shadow puppets on display in Beijing

Snakes are a symbol of transformation, so it makes sense that China’s Legend of the White Snake should itself transform through the ages. Now, a complete set of Qing-Dynasty shadow puppets used for this story are on display at the Prince Kung Mansion in Beijing.

The snake is an ambivalent symbol in most cultures: it represents magical transformation — as in the Staff of Moses — and also stands as a symbol of healing. But then again, it is also the creature through whom the devil tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.

So it is hardly surprising that the ancient Chinese Legend of the White Snake has undergone a transformation of its own: It began as a story of good and evil, with the Buddhist monk Fahai setting out to save the soul of a man, Xu Xian, from the White-Snake spirit, who was reputed to be a demon.

Over the centuries, however, the legend has evolved into a love story, with Bai Suzhen — aka the white snake or white maiden — and Xu Xian falling in love with each other. It’s story that works well in the surreal atmosphere of shadow puppetry as this exhibition attests.

Sun Dongning, the researcher said: ”The White Snake is a household legend, and the version in shadow play is a classic. This exhibition is really rare because of the scale and the precious items on display.”

These shadow puppets — more than 140 in all — date from the height of the Qing Dynasty some 300 years ago, and have been well preserved thanks to folk collectors in northwest China’s Shaanxi province.

Meanwhile, the White Snake story is also told through modern paper-cuttings displayed alongside.

“Here you can see the interesting combination of contemporary art and traditional shadow puppetry. It’s definitely a highlight of the exhibition, which I believe is an important event in this year’s art scene,” said Wu Jian’an, Assoc. Prof from China Central Academy of Fine Arts.

The exhibition also includes shadow-puppetry performances of “The White Snake” by a famous troupe from northwest China’s Shaanxi province. It runs until September the 9th, and admission is free.