It's magical! When paper-cutting meets shadow puppetry

Yang Yang
When a shadow puppetry professor met a group of traditional Zhuanqiao paper-cutting artists in Minhang District, they created a new form of art and it turned out to be magical.
Yang Yang

Shot by Yang Yang. Edited by Yang Yang. Subtitles by Yang Yang.

When a shadow puppetry professor met a group of traditional Zhuanqiao paper-cutting artists in Minhang, they sighted a "new land." Adding a translucent screen and several lights, they breathed a soul into traditional Zhuanqiao paper-cutting, allowing the paper figures to dance and their shadows to perform theater plays.

Yin Wuwei, a shadow puppetry professional from the Minhang campus of the Shanghai Theater Academy, came across the Zhuanqiao paper-cutting in 2020.

She marveled at how easily she was able to introduce the two art forms – paper cutting and shadow puppetry – to each other, and make a mixed genre with combined appeal.

"It was like there are good vibes between the two arts," said Yin. "Zhuanqiao paper-cutting is a time-honored skill. Like many folk arts, it deserves to be passed on. And dramatizing it with shadow puppetry is a way of highlighting its appeal."

The professor then joined hands with the Zhuanqiao Culture and Sports Center, young teachers from the district's Junlian Kindergarten who are skilled in Zhuanqiao paper-cutting and some of her students in the theater academy to create the Zhuanqiao paper-cutting shadow puppetry.

It's magical! When paper-cutting meets shadow puppetry
Courtesy of Zhuanqiao Town

A paper-cutting puppetry show to promote honest officialdom has recently been released online.

In 2020, they came up with "The Tale of the Bronze Bell," a legend on how village folks in Zhuanqiao Town's Beiqiao area created a bigger bronze bell with louder resonance to summon farmers to work.

The next year, another play, derived from a patriotic story that happened in Zhuanqiao in China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, was produced.

The two plays were staged during the Zhuanqiao Theater Week and the Zhuanqiao Double Ninth Festival Cake Fair in succession. They won plaudits from both professional literary critics and ordinary residents.

Recently, the first of a trilogy promoting honest officialdom was released online, telling the story of how an upright official in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) refuses a bribe by hanging a gift fish outside his gate until it turned air-dry, to discourage people with the incentive to bribe.

They're constantly exploring skills of expression for the paper-cutting shadow puppetry. In 2020 they used half puppetry and half projection performance. The next year they tried out the manual projection.

"Recently we released an online short film. We're still on our way to giving a new life to this historic and charming art form and promoting it among the public," said Yin.

"The papercuts look extraordinarily beautiful when they are still paper art. But we have to adapt them to the theater when we use them as props or settings."

A mixture of yin carvings and yang carvings on a person's face is characteristic of Zhuanqiao paper-cutting.

The yin carvings remove the pattern itself while the yang carvings maintain the pattern and remove the surplus.

"But when the figure is used in shadow puppetry, too much lines will cause features on a face to look less stereoscopic," Yin explained. "Then adaptations are made."

The young teachers from Junlian Kindergarten are responsible for producing all the papercuts in the shadow puppetry shows. They have reaped a double harvest, in art and in education.

It's magical! When paper-cutting meets shadow puppetry
Courtesy of Zhuanqiao Town

Adaptations have to be made to make Zhuanqiao papercuts more lively in the shadow puppetry shows.

"During a Double Ninth Festival, we staged the 'The Tale of the Bronze Bell' at Tianyuan Park in Minhang. The play attracted our students, their parents and many nearby residents," said Li Chunling, vice principal of Minhang Junlian Kindergarten.

"When the curtain dropped and we thanked the audience, we saw the children looking at us, their eyes sparkling with excitement. And we realized we'd somehow passed on an interest toward Zhuanqiao paper-cutting to our children," added Li, who is now a district-level Zhuanqiao paper-cutting intangible cultural inheritor.

The Zhuanqiao paper-cutting is a popular traditional decoration art in Zhuanqiao area that dates back about 100 years. Generations of inheritors have passed on the cultural heritage.

In recent years, the local paper-cutting is being promoted in domestic and overseas cultural exchanges, competitions, seminars and art exhibitions.

In 2021, a huge paper-cutting work "Zhuanqiao Impression" was displayed at the National Exhibition and Convention Center (Shanghai)'s intangible cultural heritage hall during the 4th China International Import Expo in Shanghai.

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