- Chinese Shadow Theatre: History, Popular Religion and Women Warriors
Fan Pen Li Chen’s previous book, Visions for the Masses: Chinese Shadow Plays from Shaanxi and Shanxi (reviewed in ATJ 23, no. 1) presented seven plays in new translations along with a comprehensive, highly accessible introduction to the form. In her second book on the subject of shadow theatre, Chen (a [End Page 179] professor of Chinese literature at SUNY-Albany and a consultant for the Center of Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, with which I am associated) greatly expands the depth and breadth of her discussion. This is a detailed examination of the form and provides three new translations as well.
Chen underlines the importance of the study of this genre in her introduction: “Shadow theatre provides a rare window on the mentality of the largest but least studied group of the Chinese population. Through studying this marginal performing arts tradition, especially as it is preserved in its peripheral regions, one is able to discover aspects of Chinese culture that are at once ancient and pervasive among the non-elite silent majority” (3). Sadly, despite this importance, rural Chinese shadow puppetry is a threatened art. More than 85 percent of the troupes visited in the 1980s by scholar Jiang Yuxiang were no longer in existence by the end of the 1990s. Documentation of these forms before they disappear or become inaccessible outside of the context of tourism is clearly of vital importance.
Emphasizing the literary and thematic aspects of the traditional repertoire, Chinese Shadow Theatre shows how the evolution of Chinese cultural and religious belief may be traced through its representation in this form of popular entertainment. Three interrelated subjects are examined: the origins and history of the Chinese shadow theatre and the myths that surround it, many of which have been repeated in multiple sources; popular religious belief and its role in the shadow and popular theatre; and the representation of women warriors within many shadow plays.
Chen is a literary scholar, but her books are based upon extensive field research and documentation. She refers to fifteen different troupes that she has seen perform and whose members (along with multiple puppet carvers) she has interviewed. Her access to these practitioners and knowledge and discussion of the widely differing regional traditions, reflecting differing tastes in thematic content, provides her with perspectives upon the plays’ performative contexts. A study of the texts alone could not allow such insights, and she has thoroughly documented these companies and their performances. While a limited number of black-and-white photographs complement the text, one hopes future publications will more extensively highlight the visual aspects of her research.
While the origins of shadow theatre are largely tied to local religious belief systems, by the Qing dynasty the dominance of short ritualistic plays (often featuring a tour of hell or episodes from the Taoist Investiture of the Gods ) was challenged by the popularity of performances depicting romantic, legendary, or historical themes. Despite being secular in content, these Quingera performances were also considered to be appropriate for religious occasions, due to the understanding that the gods’ tastes in entertainment were met by what pleases humans. Secular plays featuring martial content proved especially popular among the illiterate audiences, and it is within these plays that the woman warrior figures are most often found.
Chen examines the representation of such martial women characters through discussions of individual plays and compares their portrayals with [End Page 180] what we know of female warriors in Chinese history or nonpuppet narratives. Woman warriors, of course, are well-known figures within local operas (including jingju) and stories, despite rarely appearing in actual military history. The striking contrasts between such heroines of stage, puppet screen, and film and their historical models speaks of how such figures serve to express popular fantasies and desires.
Chen shows that while the woman warrior would appear to be a symbol of female agency and independence, her effort inevitably supports a male representative of a patriarchal social and political...