Text and photographs by Ding Kexi
Shadow puppetry, pi ying xi inChinese, is a folk art known forunique storytelling techniquesvia puppets constructed of animalhide or cardboard and an illuminatedbackdrop that creates the illusion of movingimages. For thousands of years, shadowpuppetry joined myriad other Chinese folkarts in actively preserving the history andculture of China. Before the invention ofelectric lights, numerous Chinese peoplewere mesmerized by shadow puppetry,which ultimately received internationalrecognition upon its addition to the List ofthe Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanityby UNESCO.
To explore the history of shadow puppetry,Yongdeng County in Gansu Provinceis a good place to start. Residing in thecounty was the Wang family, a clan that hasspecialized in performing shadow puppetrysince the Guangxu Period of the Qing Dynasty (1875-1908). Yongdeng Countyand its surrounding areas became a hotbedof shadow puppetry more than 200 yearsago. At the art’s peak in 1949, more than 20troupes were performing shadow puppetryin the county, but today only a single smalltroupe of farmers continues to perform.
Wang Desheng, a descendent of theWang family, leads the troupe. WangDesheng’s father, Wang Wanzhong wasborn in 1904 and picked up puppetry fromhis father, Wang Shandao, who took theyoung boy along when farming as well asperforming puppetry for villagers in hisspare time. During his experience learningshadow puppetry, Wang Wanzhongalso picked up reading without ever attendingschool.
When his father passed away in 1917,13-year-old Wang Wanzhong could alreadylead the troupe in performing a show. Ashe matured, Wang transformed into a tallman whose loud and clear voice and sophisticatedskill won him great popularity withvillagers. In 1957, Wang Wanzhong wonfirst prize in a competition to honor excellentpuppetry programs of Gansu Province.
After the breakout of the “culture revolution,”Wang Desheng decided to destroysome dispensable pieces of his family’spuppetry collection in public to prove hisresolution to eliminate so-called dregs offeudal culture. However, Wang managedto hide the most valuable puppets by wrappingthem in paper bags and stashing themin a basement.