One of Hebei province’s traditional operas, the shadow play, is in need of a revival by getting more attention from various parts of society, although fewer young people seem to want to learn or even watch the art form.
It uses leather silhouettes to act behind a screen and joined an Oral and Intangible Heritage Masterpiece list, in 2011. One of the major forms of this traditional opera with a more than 2,000-year history is Jinan shadow play, which has had its ups and downs over the past century in the village of Dongmazhai, the birthplace of Jinan shadow play.
The art form was still quite popular in the first decades of the 20th century, but wars had a bad effect on its development. Then it began coming back in style in the 1980s in the early years of reforms and opening-up, with craftsmen making puppets out of cow leather and reworking existing plays to promote a revival.
None of the plays uses a script, they are just passed down from one generation to the next by oral transmission, with some local culture added, making it a good tool for passing on traditions.
However, modern technology, especially the widely popular television, hit the traditional opera hard, and the passing of the older artists who were familiar with the performance, left it without any successors, causing a sharp decline. The same challenge is being posed all across China.
Zhang Yingfeng, 37, the head of a group of shadow players, explained that friends had tried to persuade him to get another job and give it up because they said it wouldn’t go anywhere and his individual effort was too small to make a real difference.
But, the 15 members of his group practiced in a ratty room with old tools and would perform for a marriage ceremony or funeral in the village and other provinces and even in some foreign countries.
Nonetheless, for a real revival, all of society needs to get involved and donate funds. Zhang says he hopes more young people can join the effort and learn the art to guarantee its being passed on from generation to generation.