19 Items in this Learning Collection
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Shadow Puppet [Chair]

Accession Number

Shadow Puppet [Chair]


Artist Nationality
Chinese (culture or style)

Object Creation Date
19th century

Medium & Support
carved and painted donkey skin

8 1/4 in. x 5 1/8 in. ( 21 cm x 13 cm )

Credit Line
Gift of Doris and Herbert Sloan

Label copy
Shadow puppets, Large cabinet with jewelry box on top
Qing dynasty (1644–1912)
19 th century
Cut and painted donkey skin
Gift of Doris and Herbert Sloan

Chinese Shadow Theatre
Shadow play, or shadow theatre, has a long history in China, where it originated.
According to legend, it was invented when Emperor Wu (156–87 BCE) of the
Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) learned his favorite concubine had died.
Saddened, he implored his court officers to revive her. In response they cut her
shape out of donkey leather, animating the joints using separate pieces of
leather, and painting on clothes. An oil lamp placed behind the figure was used to
cast its shadow on a screen. By making the shadow move, they seemingly
brought her back to life.
By the Song dynasty (960–1279), shadow plays depicting Buddhist stories or
battles between warring kingdoms had become quite popular in China. Today,
shadow theatre is performed in more than twenty countries, including many
areas of Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Thailand. The repertoire includes
dramatized versions of fairy tales and myths. The plays are quite sophisticated,
with a skilled puppeteer making the figures appear to dance, fly, walk, nod,
laugh, and more. The colors on the puppets can be seen through the translucent
paper of the theater screen and the detailed designs cut out of the leather cast
intricate shadows, so the figures appear to be wearing opulent clothing. Sets with
props like those shown here could be used in multiple productions.

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type
shadow puppet

Additional Object Classification(s)
Mixed Media

Collection Area

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