November 30, 2020

Wayang kulit revival in China

4 min read

Interest in shadow puppetry among the young on the rise with new characters being created.

PI YING XI or shadow puppetry has been given a new lease of life in China.

The stories performed are usually based on history or folklore.

Known as wayang kulit in Malaysia, this traditional entertainment is flourishing again with the addition of new elements in its performing style.

“We have to change, be creative and keep up with the times to keep this culture alive, ” said Huazhou district Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre chief Liang Sijuan.

She said a list of famous figures and modern characters had been created to attract the young.

Among them is a heroine who does ballet.

“This ballerina is especially popular among children; they love such performances because they understand and feel connected, ” said Liang.

Another creation of the group, with members averaging the age of 72, is a show of Michael Jackson doing his moonwalk.

They also created a new story named The Silk Road Story – an idea from the Belt and Road Initiative strategy adopted by the Chinese government.

Apart from this, they also performed popular children fables such as Lao Shu Tou You (The Oil- Stealing Rats), which tells how three selfish rodents are drowned in a jar of oil.

I joined a group of diplomats from Asean countries to visit the performers’ base – the Huazhou Shadow Puppet Cultural Park in Shaanxi province – to learn more about this traditional performance.

The park, which is also a pi ying xi museum, has 12 full-time performers including four “youngsters” who are well into their 40s.

I thought I heard wrongly and reconfirmed the age with Liang.

She smiled and said: “Correct… 40 years old is considered young because most of them are in the 60s and 70s.”

She added that the eldest performer is 77.

The park was set up by like-minded local folks who felt that they carried the responsibility to revive this over 2,000-year-old cultural performance, which is passed down from generation to generation.

Visitors to the park can enjoy a short pi ying xi and the traditional Huazhou lao qiang, a musical theatre-style show that sees the performers singing and dancing to the tune as they narrate the story, performed by the artistes.

Liang said they tried all things they could think of to attract more youngsters to the shadow puppet show.

About six years ago, they decided to bring the performance to schools.

“They felt that they should start with children and going to schools was their only option then, ” revealed Liang.

She said the group performed for the children to create interest while convincing the school authorities to include shadow puppet-making in the art class.

Soon, the news spread to nearby provinces with more people expressing interest in pi ying xi.

“Now, we also conduct workshops for the students during school holidays, ” Liang said, adding that members of the group had increased from a handful to more than 1,000.

In the workshop, participants are briefed on the history of pi ying xi and learn to make their own puppets and the basic moves of the characters.

Liang said the response had been encouraging.

“Participants of our programmes are increasing yearly and this year (as of early November) we already conducted classes for 5,000 people, ” she added.

Liang, however, said the road to restore the traditional drama back to its glory days was still far off.

“It is not easy. We are struggling a little bit, but progressing.

“At the beginning, we have to bring the show to the people but now the people are coming to us, ” she said.

Although the birthplace of wayang kulit could not be traced, it has a long recorded history in the Middle Kingdom.

Pi ying xi is the oldest drama in China and was listed as the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011.

“Historians believed that here, Huazhou of Shaanxi, is the birthplace of pi ying xi, ” said Liang.

Documentation showed that pi ying xi started as a street performance in the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD).

The cultural performance achieved its height of popularity during the Qing Dynasty, where even the palace invited the artistes to perform for the royal family.

It was spread to South-East Asia including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia around the 14th century.

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