Shadow puppets

From Beijing, China, late 19th century or early 20th century AD

Demons in hot pursuit

One of the popular tales told with shadow puppets in China is about the adventures of Mu Lien, who travels to Hell to save his mother from the demons that guard her. Like many others, she has been sent there to be tortured because of the sins she committed in her life. As Mu Lien and his mother escape, the demons armed with tridents chase them in a cart.

Buddhist legends, like the tale of Mu Lien, and a variety of other religious and folk stories, form most of the repertoire of traditional Chinese theatre. Shadow performances took these stories from village to village, to the houses of the nobility or even on military expeditions to entertain the troops.

The first historical evidence of shadow puppets dates to the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279), but the legendary origin of Chinese shadow puppets goes back 2000 years, when a magician is said to have brought back the spirit of the Emperor's favourite concubine by making her shadow fly across a screen, much to the Emperor's delight.

Although there was a rapid decline in shadow performances in China in the early twentieth century, it continues to be performed, with some regional differences.

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More information


S. Broman, Chinese shadow theatre, Monograph series no. 15 (Ethnografiska Museet, Stockholm, 1981)

R.H. Stalberg, Chinas puppets (China Books, 1984)

Liu Jilin, Chinese shadow puppet plays (Beijing, Morning Glory Publishers, 1988)

C. Mackerras (ed.), Chinese theater: from its orig (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1983)


Height: 55.500 cm

Museum number

AOA 1944.As3.152


Gift of Mrs H.G. Beasley


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