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  • Visions for the Masses: Chinese Shadow Plays from Shaanxi and Shanxi
  • Bradford Clark
Visions for the Masses: Chinese Shadow Plays from Shaanxi and Shanxi. By Fan Pen Li Chen. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University East Asia Program, 2004. 284 pp. Paper $24.00.

Many years ago, I was presented with a small collection of translucent Chinese shadow figures. Contemplating the detail of one especially magnificent scenic piece, a scholar's study, I became fascinated by its intricate carving and rich, saturated colors, still vibrant after many, many years. As my interest in Chinese shadow puppets grew, I became frustrated by my inability to locate scripts in translation. Those that I first encountered were short sketches or excerpted scenes, presented with minimal commentary or notation. Most anthologies are now out of print, with the exception of Sven Broman's Chinese Shadow Theatre Libretti (Bangkok: White Orchid, 1994), which is beautifully illustrated with color photographs of figures, set pieces, and reproductions of the original Chinese pages. But it is intended for a general audience, with a brief introduction and only sporadic footnotes. Fan Pen Li Chen's translation [End Page 215] of the Temple of Guanyin (originally published in Asian Theatre Journal 16.1 and reprinted in this book) clarified for me the complexity of Chinese shadow play texts.

Visions for the Masses, the first scholarly anthology of Chinese shadow scripts in English translation, increases our understanding of shadow puppet texts exponentially and gives specific insight into areas that have not been represented in earlier English translations. While the title may evoke associations with the People's Republic Marxist ideology, the plays themselves actually reflect the earlier popular culture of rural China. Chinese shadow theatre had become very sophisticated by the time of the Song dynasty (960–1280), and the Shaanxi traditions were especially popular during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The plays in this volume, varying in artistic merit and intellectual depth, come from the Shaanxi and Shanxi regions in central China (along the middle stretch of the Yellow River and bordering Inner Mongolia), which still offered over ten different styles of shadow traditions in the 1980s. These included the wanwanqiang (the most famous genre, performed in the film To Live [Zhang 1994]), laoqiang, xianbanqiang, agongqiang, and qinqiang (p. 7). As the handful of English-language translations that exist are primarily from the Beijing form of shadow theatre, this anthology is unique. The prolific Li Fanggui (who died in 1810, under threat of arrest for perceived "subversion" in his plays) wrote the two most literary plays in this volume. Others were transcribed by scholars or players from performances of anonymous works. Chen draws upon sources such as scholar Ding Jilong (who recorded several shaoxi plays from an oral recitation of an aged performer in 1998) and the Shanxi capitol city of Taiyuan's Research Institute of Drama collection of 135 plays, transcribed in the 1950s by the local Ministry of Culture in Lūliang (221).

Chen, a professor of Chinese literature at the State University of New York, Albany, not only provides the translations, but also draws upon her encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese cultural history and literary arts to contextualize the characters and actions of these plays. She clarifies the often-obscure references and underlines the thematic content for the benefit of the reader. The book's excellent and authoritative introduction provides a concise, yet comprehensive description of the Chinese shadow theatre and also lists existing translations. Chen undertook much of the fieldwork for this collection between 1996 and 1998, searching out and copying scripts, conferring with scholars, digging through archives, interviewing performers and craftspeople, photographing collections of figures, and documenting performances from both sides of the screen through both still photographs (some of which are included in the book) and video. She lists scholars, performers, family members, and acquaintances in China, Taiwan, and the United States who provided insight. Some of her informants have since passed away, poignantly underscoring the timeliness of her research. She also drew upon the collection of 1,600 shadow figures and many hand-copied scripts owned by her and her sister. Chen's work is engaged scholarship of the highest level.

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