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The Methods of Operation and Carving Art of Figures

Ox-hide shadow show is an art combining opera, music, fine art and special craftsmanship. Although it is a folk art prevalent in society withoutsignificant skills, yet its unique execution method and cutting and carving skills have made an important chapter in the history of the Chinese arts.

The Method of Manipulation

The Chinese shadow show, staged, in general, by three or five puppet manipulators, can display on a transparent white cloth screen not only joys and sorrows, partings and reunions of human beings, but also changeable scenes of fighting on ancient battlefieids amid the ciashes of arms and the neighs of horses, and the magic and fantastic feats of supernatural beings such as immortals and demons, to entertain people. Early in the Song Dynasty, the execution of shadow show had reached an almost perfect level when any one manipulator "could tell historical stories in the form of chanting while using his two hands to control an army of a hundred or ten thousands strong of the both parties in a war." However, the modern operating methods began appearing only in the period of the reign of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing period. During the reigns of emperors Kongxi and Yongzheng, the manipulating method remained the same as before, using eight silk strings to control the puppets, just like the way in a marionette show. In the 65th chapter of the well-known novel A Dream of Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin, Third Sister You reprimanded Jia Lian, saying metaphorically that "you are carrying a shadow puppet to show up before us; anyway, do remember not to prick through the sheet of paper" (It really means," I've seen plenty of shadow plays in my time; anyWay don't tear the screen to show what's behind the scenes.") Here, the word "cafrying" hints that puppets in the show at that time remained being manipulated by silk strings and the word "paper" shows a paper screen being used.

As to the operating ways used by present-day showmen, they differ from each other in various provinces and regions with their particular skills and tricks. But they all use one string to control the neck of the puppet figure and two others to control its arms and hands. The eight-string method is no longer used. Taking the shadow show of Tangshan, we'll give a brief account of its operation as follows: During the performance, particularly in executing a military play, two operators are needed. One is called the upper-string artist, who stands on the left side of the theater stage, carrying the figures to proceed from the left side to the right. He holds the string attached to the puppet's neck with his left hand and grips the string attached to its right hand with his right thumb and index finger, and with his middle finger and the fourth finger to grip the string to its left hand. The other, called low-string artist, standing on the right side of the stage,carries the puppet figures to move on behind the screen from left to right.

Puppet figures can portrait various types of personalities. Hence various different ways to control them in the play Some artists summarized their operating methods in the form of a pithy formula. In the 1920s, Hong Guochang, an upper-string manipulator of the Wanghua Shadow Theater of Leting County had Summarized his own formula for operating various types of characters in plays, such as the sheng dan, jing,mo (secondary roles and Supernatural beings) and Chou.

For instance, the formula for manipulating the characters in the play Calling the muster roll of others in the camp reads like this: "When she enters, Mu Guiying moves like willows swinging in the wind and when she is about to ascend to her seat in the camp, she turns round to strike a pose on the stage. Then she raises her leg to step forward to her seat. When she takes her seat, she bears an awe-inspiring look." For different roles of dan characters, there are different requirements of them. For instance, "when a qingyi(virtuous and faithful young or elderly ladies with dignified manners) enters, she strikes a pose with her arms crossjng before her chest while a maiden with her eyes looking down, and a wudan (a military female)like willows swinging in the wind. When a huadan (a young flirtatious girl, full of charm but, sometimes, of questionable morals) enters, she strikes a pose on the stage with her hands akimbo.

There is also the performing "formula" for the dajiamian(traitorous roles).It goes like this: "Walking one step forward, he would shake his body twice, with eyes looking up. When entering, he would stamp his feet on the stage, shaking his sleeves and erecting his back."

There are also manipulating ways for various types of wusheng (military male) characters like this: "when it requires a delicate control, it must be as light as a feather When it requires a forceful control, it must be as heavy as the weight of Mount Taishan. When standing, the character looks like a solitary and upright tree. When walking, he looks like wind sweeping leaves."

The heritage and accumulation of pithy formulae for operatjng shadow puppets reflect the levej of a type of art. Shadow show operating formula is also a summary of the experiences drawn from its operational practice.

The Carving Skills and Art of Shadow Theater

The shadow puppet carving trade first appeared at Ling' an in the Southern Song Dynasty. At that time, figures were carved and cut out of sheets of white paper Later, colored sheep's skin was used. Now, donkey's skin puppets are most commonly seen, carved by today's craftsmen.

The physiognomy of a shadow figure is called in Chinese toucha. In general, most of the faces are cut out and depicted in profile or in a half view The figure's nose bridge stretches straight upward to its forehead. Except for eyebrows, eyes, and mouth, the blank space of the face has to be gashed and cut away. Five colors including red, green, yellow, white and black are painted in the varying degrees of density and thickness on the face to show different images and personalities of different characters, in addition to a few drawings and added shades. So a rich variety of colored faces is produced. (Fig.4-3)

The presentation of a special figure with a special physiognomy together with a complete range of specifically-carved patterns, and the use of the variations of expressions of the eyes makes the silhouette of stylistic figures on the illuminated screen very vivid and outstanding.

Different color is used to depict different personalities of characters. For example, in the play of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu's face (one of the main roles) is painted in red color, with a silk-worm-like eyebrow, and upturned slant eye to show his brave, upright, and loyal and heroic personality and demeanor Green represents valor and power, and being skillfuj in battle. Cheng Yaojin in the play hon-Ciad Gravoprd and Bao Hu in the play Wu Feng Hu (Meeting at the Five-Peak Spot ) are painted with a green face. However, blue color is never used on the face. A green face may be used instead of a possible blue one. Black represents impartiality and incorruption, like the face of Bao Zhen, a well-known and honest judge. Black also represents honesty and straight forwardness, like the painted face of Yuchi Dahai, in the play the Pderl Haopin. Yellow is mostly used in plays to depict the nature of supernatural beings, like the Immortal Master of Illustrious Sagacity Er-lang who is Painted in yellow and has three eyes. White represents in general wicked and ferocious beings, like the palace eunuch Pang in the opera xigongpan(A judgement Made in the Western Palace), who is painted in white crossed with black lines,thick eyebrows, and upturned slant eyes. In the middle between eyebrows, a red nevus is marked to show his imperviousness, insidiousness and ill-wishing. Hetong in the opera DaOxiancao (Steal the Elixier Herb)whose mask is painted with a sharp beak and Lutong's mask is painted with a human body with a deer's head. The personified shrimp and fish soldiers in the lakes, rivers and oceans are painted with the images of shrimps and fish, and tortoise with a tortoise's head. The King of Dragon must be painted with a dragon's head.

It is said that physiognomy of shadow puppets originated from daimian (mask)in the Tang period. After a development of assimilation and amalgamation from other types of art, and modifications of exaggeration and diminution, or simplification and symbolization, various images of human beings have been created, becoming the unique Chinese art and craft works.

In general, shadow theater companies keep in store their puppets' physiognomy and figure (body). A first-class company may have 200- 300 figures and 1000-3000 physiognomies, and a second-class company has less in number than that of the first class.

The carving art is achieved through a complete process from the choice of material to the making and execution, including cutting out and carving and painting. Some veteran craftsmen even summarized their carving skills in the form of oral formula. It is interesing to read one formula summed up by the veteran craftsman Sun Zhaoxiang which was recorded by Mr.Liu Qingfeng. The formula for a puppet to be cut out from a donkey's skin reads like this:

"So wide and large is a sheet of donkey's hide. Be careful to cut out it in line with the design. Its most transparent part is on the rib's side, whereupon a figure's face can be cut out colorful and bright. As the skin of the donkey's bottom is liable to roll and turn up, the cutout figures will twist all over. Its back part is suitable for making a screen, a table or a chair, and its neck part for making horses, tigers and chariots. Sharp broadswords and sables must be cut out on a straight line, while a broken edge of blade with an outward back are definitely not allowed. Unbefitting embellishments attached to them are not acceptable. Cutting along the right texture of the hide can make the figure stand erect. Otherwise it may roll up and decline to one side. A straight nose and a sharp-cornered eye under a commander's pointing helmet should be cut out along a slant line point to point, and the corner of the mouth should be set in proportion to the corner of the eye, thus making the figure smile." Both the banks of the Luanhe River in Hebei Province are the birthplace of the Tangshan shadow show During the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China, a number of renowned shadow puppet makers appeared. Some of their products have been preserved in many best-known galleries and art museums in the world.

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