90s Kids: The Shadow Player
Ding Jianlong has been studying the traditional Chinese art form of shadow play for five years. For a time, he had his eyes set on the bamboo flute, but when he was introduced to an old shadow puppeteer by chance, he was immediately hooked.
“Ever since the first time I saw shadow play, I’ve thought it was beautiful and magical,” Ding says. After learning the basics of preparing and coloring the leather of the puppets, he began to get a feel for the nuances of performance. “The key is to understand the characters,” he says. “If I’m controlling the puppet of a gentleman, I need to think about how he walks — I need to show that he’s gentle and refined. If it is a lady crying, I need to take great care to present her emotion in the most genuine way possible.”
The person who made Ding fall in love with shadow play in 2009 was an elderly man, the director of a shadow play troupe. He has since passed away, but the words he whispered on his death bed continue to echo in Ding’s mind. “He couldn’t recognize his own two daughters, let alone me,” Ding remembers. “He only remembered shadow play. He was mumbling that we must pass on shadow play through the generations.”
Now an experienced shadow play performer, Ding gets upset from time to time with the state of the industry. “We don’t have many young people in the troupe, and we don’t have enough performances,” he says. “My income is a little over 1,000 yuan per month ($150), which isn’t enough.”
But Ding is determined to follow the words of his late mentor. He enjoys giving shadow play performances, and he’s glad that they are still able to bring people joy. “I think shadow play is as charming as traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy,” he says. “I hope it will shine on for the rest of time.”