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October 10, 2018

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Shadow puppeteer carries forward message of anti-graft campaign

Standing behind a white curtain amid the sound of drums, Ding Yongfa tells the story of a corrupt official brought to justice in a special performance by silhouette figures.

This is a scene from a traditional Chinese shadow puppet performance where the silhouette figures, made from cowhide, show how Yan Peitian, a righteous official, fought his corrupt peer during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Behind the curtain is the soul of the performance — puppeteer Ding Yongfa. Using his flexible hands and voice, he makes the figures stroke their beards, nod their heads, wave their hands and curse others.

“This story is my latest creation,” said Ding, 55, a villager in Xiangdong District of Pingxiang City, in eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. “It tells how a local official named Yan Peitian in Xiangdong fights one of his peers who tortured people.”

Ding said he wants to use the puppets to show the anti-corruption drive in China, which is gaining momentum. In August, for example, 7,846 officials were punished for violating the Party’s eight-point frugality code, according to the top anti-graft body of the Communist Party of China.

Ding came up with the idea of exposing corruption via shadow puppet performances.

“I thought it would be a good idea,” Ding said.

“I can not only pass on the traditional art but also help spread education against corruption among the public.”

Ancient Chinese historical records show that shadow puppet plays were created by a Chinese Taoist during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) to console Emperor Wu, who was heartbroken after losing one of his imperial concubines.

The Taoist made a stone image of the concubine and projected it in a tent with candle light. The shadow looked so vivid that it helped the emperor out of the grief.

Over the next 2,000 years, the stone figures were gradually replaced by cowhide ones, and the tents were turned into curtains. Performers then added drum sounds and Chinese opera to accompany the movement of the figures, and the shadow play was born.

In Xiangdong District, where the art has developed for more than 200 years, Ding is a fifth-generation inheritor of shadow puppetry, starting to learn the art at age of 11.

“He is a master of shadow puppetry, and we thought the idea of combining the art with anti-graft theme would be a good idea,” said local discipline inspection official Huang Yunzhang.

Huang said that in the eyes of many, anti-graft education can be dry, but shadow puppetry has enlivened such education.

“To make the education more understandable and enjoyable, we supported Ding’s idea, and provided whatever sources he needed,” Huang said.

In June 2011, China issued a law protecting intangible cultural heritage. That same year, shadow puppetry was put on a list of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.


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