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Shadow puppet of a woman with intricate headdress.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Chinese Shadow Puppetry

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Chinese Shadow Puppetry

This Lunar New Year, take some time to learn about one of China’s oldest art practices. Here are five things you didn’t know about the ancient artform of Chinese shadow puppetry:


1. It’s a Truly Ancient Practice

Although some sources claim it was brought over from India in the 10th century, many experts believe shadow puppetry originated in China over two thousand years ago, during the Han Dynasty. That makes Chinese shadow puppetry about the same age as the Great Wall, and older than the Forbidden City, Colosseum, or Taj Mahal! Migrations from China westward are also said to have spread shadow puppetry to the Middle East and Europe, including the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), where it developed into the practice of Karagöz theatre.



2. Its Origins Are Rooted in Legend

There have been many claims to the origin of shadow puppetry, but it is most closely associated with a legend about Emperor Han Wudi. Following the passing of his favourite concubine, the Emperor’s sadness was inconsolable. Aiming to alleviate the Emperor’s heartache, his close advisor was inspired by the lifelike shadows cast by parasols in the midday sun, and that night conjured for the Emperor the likeness of his loved one using lights, screens and shadow. Relieved of his grief through this visit with his beloved’s silhouette, the Emperor ruled in prosperity for many years.



3. It Carries Deep Cultural Meaning

During its peak popularity, shadow puppetry was practiced across China’s provinces, with each region adding its own musical and visual spin to the artform. Although its legendary origins were tied to the empire, its simple and portable framework made this storytelling device accessible to farmers, labourers, and the working class at large. Life’s milestones, including birthdays, weddings and funerals, were marked by evenings of music and puppetry that lasted from dusk until dawn. Performances that remain popular today include a Robin Hood-like tale called Shuihu zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh), and stories that follow the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu as they struggle for power.



4. It Was Banned (Countless Times!)

During the Yuan dynasty, the ruling government restricted folk shadow plays because of security concerns. Shadow puppetry was also called into question in the late 18th century, as rebel groups such as the White Lotus Secret Society frequently used it for propaganda. In the 20th Century, the practice in its traditional form was banned, with flexibility for puppetry troupes who would perform on behalf of the government. The divide created between grassroots shadow puppetry and its modern, national form still exists today.



5. You Can Recreate Shadow Puppets at Home

You can celebrate this ancient artform at home through our upcoming digital workshop! With artist and researcher Annie Katsura Rollins as your guide, you’ll learn about the origins of Chinese shadow puppetry, discover how these extraordinary puppets are made, and create a shadow puppet of your own using common craft supplies. Find out more at




Images 1,4, and 5: Chinese shadow puppets from the Yutian Wenhua collection. Photo by Annie Katsura Rollins. Image 3: Magical animal III, shadow puppet from Shaanxi Province, 19th century, Lin Liu-Hsin Museum. Image 2/Banner: Chinese Shadow Play Figure, Set of the Mandschu Prince, Qing Dynasty.