Shadows of the past still teach about Chinese culture

Students observed a popular art form in Chinese culture when they attended a lecture on Chinese shadow theater, sponsored by the Chinese Culture Club on Oct. 19. The lecture, “China’s Amazing Shadow Theater,” featured Mary Hirsch, an independent scholar from Princeton, who has studied the popular art form for over 20 years.

“The first thing that attracted me to Chinese shadow theater (was) the figures themselves,” Hirsch said. “They were fantastic.”

According to the Web site, Chinese shadow theater is an ancient folk art that originated almost 1,000 years ago. In Chinese shadow theater, musicians sit backstage behind a white screen and use their hands and strings to manipulate colorful and intricately designed puppets in order to depict stories. Music and sound effects often accompany the performances.

Hirsch used a PowerPoint presentation as a visual complement in order to highlight the different kinds of performances, character types, themes and settings.

Although Chinese shadow theater utilizes puppets to portray characters instead of people, the art form is not without its share of character archetypes. For instance, there are “good guys,” “bad guys,” “tricksters” and other popular archetypes that artists have depicted in stories and plays since the beginning of time. According to Hirsch, in Chinese shadow theater the male lead is known as “Sheng,” the painted-face character is known as “Jing” and spirits in the stories are known as “Shengai.”

Matthew Talarico, freshman engineering major, said he enjoyed Hirsch’s lecture and presentation.

“I thought the best part about the lecture was learning about the identifying features of each one of the different character types,” he said. “I think I learned a lot about different symbols in Chinese culture and the importance of shadow theater.”

Hirsch also spoke about the color symbolism in the puppets, whose faces are brightly painted. She showed the audience different paintings of the puppets’ faces. Hirsch explained that puppets with black faces usually represent benevolent characters, while white faces represent evil characters.

Some students from Dr. Jia-Yan Mi’s modern languages course in Chinese attended the lecture. One of the students, Stephanie Seto, freshman history major, said she really enjoyed the presentation.

“It was different from other programs I’ve been to in the past and not that many people know about it,” Seto said. She also said she especially liked “the different paintings and how they were representative of different characters.”

In her presentation, Hirsch showed photographs and silk paintings of Chinese shadow theater characters as well as film clips from actual Chinese shadow theater performances.

The performances in Chinese shadow theater are military-oriented (including fighting, death and blood), domestic-oriented (the setting revolves around the familial interactions between people at home) and supernatural-oriented (gods, ghosts, monsters and special effects).

Although one of the most exciting spectacles about the art form is its graphic scenes, there usually is also a historical context and lots of humor in the stories, Hirsch explained.

Viewing images of Chinese shadow theater performances in photographs and paintings doesn’t have nearly the same effect as physically witnessing the art form unfold in each scene. Recognizing this, Hirsch invited a few students to enact a Chinese shadow theater performance using miniature puppets to entertain the audience. The audience welcomed the student performance, which resulted in plenty of laughs.

Chris Lee, president of the Chinese Culture Club and senior computer science major, said he was pleased with the outcome.

“The turnout was pretty good for a small club,” he said. “I saw some new faces, so that was good.”

Lee stressed that the program was especially important because it gave the Chinese Culture Club legitimacy.

“We were able to solely showcase Chinese culture,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why Chinese Culture Club exists.”