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The heritage hidden in shadows

By Li Yingxue | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-07 08:09

A shadow puppetry artwork created by Wang's Shadow is exhibited during the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi'an in May. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Young inheritor of Shaanxi puppetry has plans to revitalize the ancient cultural tradition, and many others with it, Li Yingxue reports.

Have you ever experienced one of the earliest precursors of movies? It boasts star-studded ensembles, undergoes rapid transformations in the blink of an eye, and even includes special effects, music and performances, all without the aid of machines or computers.

Solely relying on hands, the ancient Chinese art of shadow play is a tradition with a history that dates back 2,000 years, and it's also a representative of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity recognized by UNESCO.

Last month, two prominent online personalities, each with more than 10 million followers, Nanxiang Buaichifan and Jiuyue, shared videos documenting their journey to learn how to perform shadow puppetry that have garnered over 20 million views on social media platforms, such as Bilibili and Douyin.

"Some romance may have long faded, but we can use traditional techniques passed down through the generations to create a romance that belongs to today's world, which is marked by hardships and complexities," Bilibili content creator Shujiangyuan wrote, commenting on Jiuyue's video.

The two personalities dedicated a month to learning the art from scratch, beginning with the intricacies of handling cowhide, before progressing to drawing and carving, culminating in a joint performance with the shadow puppets they had made.

Dang Feihua is the fifth-generation inheritor of Wang's Shadow, a family troupe based in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, which is famous for shadow puppet making and especially its carving skills. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The challenge of mastering this millennia-old technique within such a short time frame initially seemed like mission impossible. Fortunately, Nanxiang Buaichifan and Jiuyue were lucky enough to learn from the best — Dang Feihua, a 23-year-old inheritor of the shadow puppetry tradition.

Dang is the fifth-generation inheritor of Wang's Shadow, a family troupe based in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, which is famous for shadow puppet making, and especially its carving skills. Dang's mother Wang Haiyan is one of the top 10 folk artists in China, and his grandfather Wang Tianwen is an industrial art master. Dang has embraced the family legacy. Not only does he skillfully blend the traditional with the contemporary in his creations, he also pioneers methods to enhance the presentation and preservation of this cultural heritage, especially ways of integrating the ancient art form into daily life.

Collaborating with the two prominent online personalities was a strategic move to introduce the world of shadow puppetry to the influencers' young followers.

Dang says that the duo took their apprenticeships seriously. "Jiuyue has a foundation in painting, so she learned quickly, while Nanxiang Buaichifan, having experimented with various crafts, also caught on swiftly. Both of them approached their training with great seriousness," he says.

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