Chinese shadow theater combines intricate design, carving, and painting with music, song, dialogue, and the manipulation of shadow figures. Already highly developed by the Song dynasty (960-1280), traditional operatic style shadow plays are still being performed in more than twenty provinces around China. The shadow traditions in Northeastern China and those found in and around the province of Shaanxi in Northwestern China are the two most prominent styles in existence.  In Northeastern China, shadow figures are cut from donkey hide, while in Shaanxi they are cut from cattle hide. Sheep, goat, pig, and water buffalo hides are used in Eastern and Southern China.

The shadow figures on exhibit are from the collection of Dr. Fan Pen Chen, Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies and a leading authority on Chinese shadow theater. They are selected from among a set of several hundred figures that once belonged to a theater troupe in Qinghai in Northwestern China.  Research suggests that this rare collection dates from the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and that it may have been owned by a provincial government official.  During one of Dr. Chen’s research trips to China in the late 1980s, she learned of the collection from Dr. Richard Hardiman, an agriculturalist from Israel, who also collected shadow figures.  Rather than allow the collection to be sold separately and dispersed, Dr. Hardiman persuaded Dr. Chen to procure the collection in its entirety.

The origin of these figures can be traced to the Wanwan Qiang (Bell Tunes), the most refined shadow tradition in Shaanxi. In Qinghai from the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to the early Republican Period (1911-1949), similar figures were used to perform the most popular plays of the region: The Eighteen Levels of Hell and a variety of episodes from the popular religious sagas, such as Journey to the West and Investiture of the Gods.

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