Shadow play is perhaps the most ancient scenic art in History. It is based in the projection of articulated puppets in front of an illuminated background, causing sensation of movement. During thousands of years, it has entertained and taught both humble and aristocratic classes, specially in Asia, where it was originated.
China: Poems and romances
According to the legend, Chinese shadow play dates back to the Han dynasty (3rd BC-3rd AD centuries), when an emperor lost his favorite concubine. A taoist monk used a shadow to evoke a feminine shape, which the Emperor believed was his reborn lover. What is certain, is that in the time of the Tang dinasty (7th-10th centuries), it was a popular entertainment very spread in the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Hebei, which later passed to Beijing. During the Ming period (XIV-XVII centuries) it was not exclusive of the lower classes anymore, and passed to the aristocracy and imperial family.
In China, puppets were small and made of paper or leather. A puppeter handled them with three sticks (one for the head, one for each arm), and made the voice of every character, while a small orchestra accompanied dramatic scenes (specially many "gongs"). There were four defined types of characters: men (sheng), women (dan), painted faces (jing) and clowns (chou), each of them with a specific symbolism and function.
Although this genre gave way to many regional styles, thematic was essentially the same: Buddhist teachings in the beginning, romances and epic lyrics later (the one referring to Liu Bang and Xian Yu was very popular, see previous post).
India: Mediator between men and gods
It is not known with certainty whether the shadow theatre appeared in India, Thailand and Indonesia originating from China or had an independent evolution. There are major differences, such as the puppet size (it was normally human in India, its size showing the character social rank though), and its lower articulating ability. Used matierals were coloured and translucent, leading to a much colour and surreal aspect.
This oniric effect has perhaps influenced its final significance. In the Indian region, shadow theatre was the main medium to express the supernatural, very used for the spreading of mythical Hinduist literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Performances even became rites with the powers of bringing rain and healing the sick and possessed.
In India, the puppeteer job was something hereditary, and almost sacred. Entire wandering families were in charge of building puppets and performing, being considered as some kind of priests. Nowadays, Indian shadow play is in decadence, except for the Wayang Kulit in Java, which enjoys an official protected status.
Turkey: Political satire
Maybe brought to Persia and Middle East by Gengis Khan's conquests, Turkish shadow theatre has Chinese influences. However, due to its colourful aspect, it is widely accepted that it comes from Ancient Egypt and Java, with influences from Greek phylosophy.
Featured characters evolve to the point of having a very defined symbolism, and the same appear in every performance. Most important are Karagoz and Hacivat (the first, showing his common sense, the latter his education), the courtesan Sitt al Husyn (who represents Love), and the doctor Mustapha (who symbolises power and corruption). The meaning was essentially satirical and didactical.
First described by Ibn Danyal in Cairo, during the 16th Century is spread in the Ottoman Empire. There it acquired great popularity, specially in Turkish cafes during the month of Ramadan and in Muslim feasts. However, it seldom had a religious significance, but instead it reflected social problems of the time, always from a humorous perspective. It was, say, the daily newspaper at that time.