East Asian Library - Luminous Worlds

The East Asian Library and the Gest Collection

普林斯頓大學葛思德東亞圖書館 ・ プリンストン大学東アジア図書館 ・ 프린스턴 대학교 동아시아 도서관

Today's Hours

For summer, holidays or recess hours, please consult the full schedule.

Contact Us

Frist Campus Center
 (609) 258-3182
Fax: (609) 258-4573


Introducing a collection of Chinese shadow figures from the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection

Opening Reception: Thursday, August 20, 2009, 4:00 PM. East Asian Library, 3rd Floor, Frist Campus Center

Lecture: Thursday, November 12, 2009, 4:30PM.
Mary Hirsch, "1,001 Heads: Animating the Universe and Mimicking the Neighbors". 202 Jones Hall, Princeton University.

Shadow Figures in Action

The following text is from the handout accompanying this exhibition.

For over a thousand years people in urban and rural China have enjoyed the spectacle of Chinese shadow theater, in which historic and fantastic tales are dramatized by brilliantly colored, rawhide figures along with spoken and sung dialog and traditional music. Shadow figures are manipulated from behind a cloth scrim by several players, while in front the audience sees lifelike movements of translucent, vivid figures of heavenly immortals, earthly heroes, and suffering souls. The unique feature of translucency achieves a supernatural effect through backlighting the scrim, increasing the other-worldly nature of this popular entertainment, which in many performances honored local Buddhist and Taoist deities.

The East Asian Library and the Gest Collection of Princeton University is proud to have a set of over 2,000 pieces of Chinese shadow figures. Made in the Luanzhou 灤州 or Leting 樂亭 style popular in northeast China, to all appearances during the last years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) or the early years of the Republican Period (1912-1949), they were acquired in the late 1920s for Guion Moore Gest (1864-1948), the founder of the Gest Collection, by his purveyor Irvin Van Gorder Gillis (1875-1948), residing in Peking. When the Gest Rare Book Collection moved from Montréal to Princeton, a generous (and long-time anonymous) donation by Esther S. Bailey (18??-1963), former secretary of the Institute for Advanced Study, enabled these objects to remain an integral part of the Gest Collection.

As such, they were kept intact by Nancy Lee Swann, the Curator of the Gest Collection from 1931 to 1948, a well-known scholar, who arranged for the collection to be seen by the two major American practitioners of Chinese shadow theater, Pauline Benton (1898-1974) of the Red Gate Players, and, later, Jo Humphrey of the Yueh Long Shadow Theatre. While Benton had plans to organize performances on behalf of the China Aid Council during WWII, this seems not to have come to fruition, but some pieces would be later used for two exhibitions at the New Jersey State Museum, and Humphrey organized an exhibition at the Chung-Cheng Art Gallery, St. John’s University in New York in 1980, in which figures from the Gest Collection were exhibited. Since then the collection was stored away largely out of view, and remained unknown to the general public.

Chance inquiries in 2006 by a Princeton resident, Mary E. Hirsch, a scholar of Chinese shadow theater, resulted in her undertaking the cataloging and re-housing of the collection. This exhibition, curated by her, is the culmination of that project. For the first time in more than 50 years, the general public is able to view a small but wide-ranging selection of Princeton University’s shadow figures.

shadowThe exhibition has been divided in several parts to show the integration of the shadow figure theater within Chinese culture as a whole: religion (scenes from purgatory), literature and folklore (scenes from The Chaos BoxThe Investiture of the GodsJourney to the West, and The Tale of the White Snake), scholarly life (a spectacle of an examination candidate’s success), and, since this is Princeton, one case devoted to tigers and tiger-skin-clad creatures ranging from generals to demons. The exhibition concludes with a case explaining how shadow figures were made and used in actual performances as well as some of the more interesting conventions unique to this form of entertainment. About two hundred pieces, or roughly one tenth of the collection are on view.

shadowIn addition to Ms. Hirsch, many other individuals from various Princeton departments contributed their time and expertise, in particular Jody Beenk, Assistant Rare Books Conservator, who managed the exhibition design and installation. Chinese Bibliographer Martin Heijdra coordinated the project and helped prepare the texts, while Ted Stanley, Special Collections Paper Conservator, did an initial assessment of the collection and oversaw its rehousing. Conservation Technician Nicole Dobrowolski and volunteer Nina Moeller assisted with the installation of the exhibition. Other material assistance was provided by the staff of the Marquand and Geology Libraries, and the Systems Office. The project as a whole has benefited from financial grants from the East Asian Studies Program, The Preservation Office of the Princeton University Library, General Library Funds, and the Tang Center for East Asian Art.


Shadow figures are created from prepared animal hide, carved piece by piece, and painted with pigments mixed with boiled animal glue. Sometimes a coating of oil from the nut of the tong tree 桐樹 (Aleurites fordii) adds greater brilliance and translucency. The various parts (usually ten: torso, two upper arms, two lower arms, two hands, abdomen, and two lower legs) when threaded together with twisted cotton cords become hinged joints; and metal rods with wooden handles, attached at the hands and neck, animate the figures when handled by skilled manipulators. After the body is fully assembled a head inserted into a specially designed collar at the neck provides the figure’s identity.

The performers backstage manipulate the translucent shadow figures against the cloth scrim with the light of only a single electric bulb or an oil lamp. Backlighting illuminates the figures thereby providing the audience on the other side a brightly colored theater experience. The cloth scrim acts both as a barrier to the audience, and as a support for the shadow figures and any large props leaning against it. Thus, the shadow theater is really a theater of colored shadows rather than black silhouettes. Meanwhile, musicians, also essential backstage performers, take their cues from the twelve-inch actors on the screen.

shadowOne of the most ingenious aspects of the shadow theater is transformation. Tiny hinges and pulleys allow features to flip, rotate, or shift their forms suddenly or serenely. In the blink of an eye a lady can turn into a monster, a demon suddenly grows, or, more subtly, faces change from innocent to suffering. The shadow theater shares the convention of generic role types with many other performance genres including regional opera. Most visible in the carved features of each head, the major role types are: male lead (sheng 生), female lead (dan 旦), painted face ( jing 淨), comic (chou 丑), and spirits and demons (shengui 神鬼). Only easily recognized popular heroes and villains, such as Monkey (Sun Wukong 孫悟空) and the Demon Queller Zhong Kui 鐘馗, have unique, specific features. Furthermore, the depiction of wrinkles and universal facial expressions clearly indicate the character’s age and moral disposition. Thus, audiences immediately recognize the facial features and hats of valiant young female warriors, corrupt old male servants, or brave and honest heroes no matter what type of costume is depicted.

Not many details are known about the Chinese shadow figures of the East Asian Library. A handwritten Chinese-style inventory, called De xin ying shou得心應手, categorizes the items by their clothing characteristics. At several points in the past, selections from the collection were exhibited by the two major personalities who introduced Chinese shadow theater in the United States: Pauline Benton and Jo Humphrey. The East Asian Library also holds the one major collection of Chinese shadow figure plays translated into a Western language, Wilhelm Grube’s Chinesische Schattenspiele (1915) together with the rare edition of the Chinese original texts for Grube’s book.  The Yan ying ju, 燕影劇, which refers to Beijing-style plays, was printed in a hybrid Chinese-Western style in the same year in northeast China at the Catholic Printing House in Yanzhou-fu in Shandong province.


In the lower register of this scene, a top scholar, wearing distinctive embroidered robes and a flowered graduate’s cap, is parading through town. Having passed the onerous imperial exams with distinction, he and his retinue are about to meet up with his bride-to-be. She is hidden in the decorated palanquin borne by four Manchu carriers, seen in the middle register. Numerous musicians, porters, guards, and standard bearers complete this auspicious occasion, waving their way to the upper register. Note that every figure is depicted as a clown. Such a scene may have been included in the play Getting a Wife, Qu Xifu娶媳婦. Characters carefully painted on the standards, flags and even the clothing seen here include messages for the newlyweds, xixi 喜喜 ‘double happiness’ roundels, wishes for the scholar’s success, zhiri gaosheng 指日高陞 ‘May you soon be promoted!’, wishes for limitless triumphs, wanshou wujiang 萬壽無疆‘ 10,000 years without boundaries’, and to clear the road of riff raff , huibi  迴避 ‘stay out of the way’.


Perhaps the most famous story from China, this play is based on the actual travels of the 7th-century monk Xuanzang 玄奘. Here, he is accompanied by Pigsy, Zhu Bajie 豬八戒, and Friar Sandy, Sha Wujing 沙悟淨, while the willful Monkey, Sun Wukong 孫悟空, is stealing the peaches of immortality. Favorite episodes from this tale of the quest for Buddhist knowledge involve fantastic battles with weird demons and lively matches of wit with strange creatures. Two scenes are here joined by Guanyin 觀音, the Goddess of Mercy, who indeed plays a critical role in this play and The Tale of The White Snake.


On the right, White Snake, Bai Suzhen 白素貞, (identified by the small snake on top of her head) and her maid and fellow immortal, Little Green, Xiaoqing小青, cross a bridge in Hangzhou on their way to the fine home of her suitor, a young gentleman named Xu Xian 許仙 (here wearing a yellow gown). Meanwhile, an abbot with a curly beard, Fahai, 法海, knowing that Bai is not human, is already sowing the seeds of doubt and using his magical powers to prevent the forbidden love match between an innocent human and a spirit in disguise. Spectacular transformations and beautiful singing make this shadow play, with its Song dynasty (960-1279) refinement, a perpetual favorite in both shadow theater and human opera.

THE CHAOS BOX Hun yuan he 混元盒

shadowPerformances of The Chaos Box were especially popular in the Beijing area. In this episodic play set during the time of the corrupt rule of the Jiajing 嘉靖emperor, (r. 1521-1567), Taoist and Buddhist deities restore order in the human world through a series of battles with supernatural demons, finally succeeding in capturing the Five Noxious Creatures (Wu du 五毒), that is, a toad, a scorpion, a snake, a lizard, and a centipede, into a small “chaos box” for all eternity. On the left the Five Noxious Creatures in their original form are being drawn into the ether of the small Chaos Box; the nearby heads represent their deceptively humanlike forms. Meanwhile, on the right the Demon Queller ZhongKui  鍾馗 emerges suddenly from the black wall to fight the White Fox Demon Baihu 白狐, thereby breaking the spell over the bewitched playboy lying asleep on the floor. The Black and White Stone Demons make trouble before being transformed back into stone gate guardians.


More than 80 volumes of play scripts, or well over two months of nightly performances, are devoted to Fengshen yanyi, originally a 16th-century novel. With a cast of hundreds of supernatural Taoist celestials, mythical beasts, and semi-historical heroes this is one of the most popular epic plays in the Luanzhou shadow theater tradition. The story is set 3,000 years ago, and revolves around the downfall of the depraved last Shang 商 king, Di Xin 帝辛 and his rotten courtiers, shown in this scene. Flying from the clouds the birdlike Xin Huan 辛環, in the Shang king’s camp, attacks the mighty lotus-garbed enfant terrible, Nezha哪吒, who supports the ultimately victorious Zhou 周 king thereby supplanting the Shang. Below them the immortal, Jiang Ziya 姜子牙, depicted in a red and-black opera face, ensures the success of the Zhou dynasty with his supreme military strategies in the decisive battle of Muye 牧野. Zhou followers depicted here include women warriors such as Longji Gongzhu 龍吉公主, and Taoist celestials such as the extraordinary Yang Ren 楊任, recognizable by his little hands with eyes. The scary looking Shang forces, assembled on the right, include their king Di Xin atop a supernatural camel, his loyal Grand Tutor Wen Zhong 聞仲with a third eye on his forehead, and Li Gen 李艮, a grimacing demon equestrian.


The tiger has been Princeton’s totem since the late 1890s. Tigers and figures wearing tiger skins inhabit the Chinese universe and the underworld as well. In the upper register a menacing giant, perhaps the tiger-skin clad Māra, personifying Death and Destruction, splits in half, apparently oblivious to the tiger at his feet and his minions goofing off nearby. Below them, a grinning tiger beckons from the red gates surmounted by the Wheel of Transmigration of Souls, while inside, Yama, the Judge of the Tenth Hell presides over death and rebirth. Atop a compound wall, a judge and two tiger-clad demons accompany a gloomy man in black into Fengdu 豐都城, the City of the Dead. The man is the only one not smiling. In the lower register, a magnificent rebel compound is under attack by tiger cavalry and foot soldiers. One figure may be the heroic Bi Gan 比干, the uncle of the last Shang emperor, who always rides a black tiger.



Judgment after death for Buddhists, Taoists and unaffiliated beings has always loomed large in the shadow theater, which graphically and humorously depicts the fates of the dead. In the scenes of purgatory depicted here, the powerful kings of the underworld have assigned specific punishments for immoral behavior: murderers are pounded; kidnappers and pimps are dismembered by sawing; torsos of ungrateful schemers are severed; profiteering crooks must climb a hill of blades; and commercial cheaters and mean daughters-in-law are hung upside down by a hook. Of course, rebirth is also possible after punishment, but if the crimes against family and society are severe enough, one may be a hungry ghost or a creature of hell in the next life.

The thousand-year-old vision of an official bureaucracy for dispensing justice after death has an uncanny resemblance to the structure of the imperial court and the offices of local magistrates. It is no wonder then that graphic scenes such as these perpetuated this understanding. The shadow players emitting harrowing cries make demons jump, torture, and haunt the suffering souls thereby admonishing the living world in an unforgettable way in such plays as Visiting Hades (You Diyu 遊地獄), and Hu Di Defies Yanluo Wang (Hu Di bang Yanluo Wang 胡迪謗閻羅王).