Pi Ying Xi is one of the oldest kinds of drama in China, and is said to have its roots in the Han Dynasty. The leather puppets are painted with various colors and their designs follow the traditional moral evaluation and aesthetics coming from historical theaters, legends, stories of classical books or myths. Some are kind or wicked, beautiful or ugly. The positive figure has long narrow eyes, and a small mouth while the negative one has small eyes, a big forehead and droopy mouth. All the leather puppets are sculptures highly precise, simply shaped with decorative patterns. In Gansu province, the play is accompanied by Daoqing music, while in Jilin, Huanglong music forms some of the basis of modern opera.
About its origin; it is said that the Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty was deeply in love with one of his concubines Lady Li, but the good times didn’t last long and she fell sick afterwards. As the Emperor visited her, she covered her face and refused his request of taking a last look at her. She wanted to stay beautiful in his mind so that he’ll remember her forever, because she was afraid that all he favoured was her appearance after all.
After she died of illness, the Emperor missed her so much that he lost his desire to reign.
To help him get over the sadness, an occultist ordered by the minister, sculptured a wooden figure in the likeness of Lady Li and projected its shadow on a curtain, bringing him consolation with the belief that it was her spirit. Her joints were animated using 11 separate pieces of leather, and adorned with painted clothes. Using an oil lamp they made her shadow move, bringing her back to life. This story recorded in ancient books is believed to be the origin of the shadow play.
Shadow play is popular in various cultures and currently there are more than 20 countries known to have shadow puppet shows . Shadow play is an old tradition especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and India. It is a popular form of entertainment for both children and adults!