Shadow play

Chinese shadow theatre figures

Shadow play, also known as shadow puppetry, is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment which uses flat articulated cut-out figures (shadow puppets) which are held between a source of light and a translucent screen or scrim. The cut-out shapes of the puppets sometimes include translucent color or other types of detailing. Various effects can be achieved by moving both the puppets and the light source. A talented puppeteer can make the figures appear to walk, dance, fight, nod and laugh.

Shadow play is popular in various cultures, among both children and adults in many countries around the world. More than 20 countries are known to have shadow show troupes. Shadow play is an old tradition and it has a long history in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. It has been an ancient art and a living folk tradition in China, India and Nepal. It is also known in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Germany, France and the United States.[1][2][3]


Shadow play probably developed from "par" shows with narrative scenes painted on a large cloth and the story further related through song. As the shows were mostly performed at night the par was illuminated with an oil lamp. Shadow puppet theatre likely originated in Central Asia-China or in India in the 1st millennium BCE.[4][1] By at least around 200 BCE the figures on cloth seem to have been replaced with puppetry in Indian "tholu bomalatta" shows. These are performed behind a thin screen with flat, jointed puppets made of colorfully painted transparent leather. The puppets are held close to the screen and lit from behind, while hands and arms are manipulated with attached canes and lower legs swinging freely from the knee. [5]

The evidence of shadow puppet theatre is found in both ancient Chinese and Indian texts. The most significant historical centers of shadow play theatre have been China, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.[1][2][6]

According to Martin Banham, there is little mention of indigenous theatrical activity in the Middle East between the 3rd century CE and the 13th-century, including the centuries that followed the Islamic conquest of the region.[7] The shadow puppet play, states Banham, probably came into vogue in the Middle East after the Mongol invasions and thereafter it incorporated local innovations by the 16th-century. Little mention of shadow play is found in Islamic literature of Iran, but much is found in Turkish and 19th-century Ottoman Empire influenced territories.[7]

While shadow play theatre is an Asian invention, hand puppets have a long history in Europe.[8] As European merchant ships sailed in the search of sea routes to India and China, they helped diffuse popular entertainment arts and cultural practices into Europe. Shadow theatre became popular in France, Italy, Britain and Germany by the 17th-century.[9][10] In France, shadow play was advertised as Ombres Chinoises, while elsewhere they were called "Magic Lantern".[9] Goethe helped build a shadow play theatre in Tiefurt in 1781.[10][11]

Prelude to cinematography

According to Stephen Herbert, the popular shadow theatre evolved nonlinearly into projected slides and ultimately into cinematography. The common principle in these innovations were the creative use of light, images and a projection screen.[12] According to Olive Cook, there are many parallels in the development of shadow play and modern cinema, such as their use of music, voice, attempts to introduce colors and mass popularity.[13]

Other Languages
العربية: خيال الظل
Deutsch: Schattenspiel
Ελληνικά: Θέατρο σκιών
Esperanto: Ombroludo
한국어: 그림자극
italiano: Teatro d'ombre
македонски: Театар со сенки
Nederlands: Schimmenspel
日本語: 影絵
polski: Teatr cieni
português: Teatro de sombras
română: Teatru de umbre
русский: Театр теней
svenska: Skuggspel
Türkçe: Gölge oyunu
українська: Театр тіней
粵語: 皮影戲
中文: 皮影戲