Oriol Casanovas Photographer
April 28th, 2017

Lao Qiang, a big-screen performance from before cinema and TV

Shaanxi Province is located in the middle section of the Yellow River, in north-central China. It is at the southern tip of a vast dusty plain dominated by the imposing Mount Hua, one of the five sacred mountains of China. At the foot of this mountain there is the small and humble town of Shuang Quan. In this tiny piece of the world lives Mrs. Zhang Xiangling. This lady is a musician and the director of a small traveling troupe of performers dedicated to entertaining at birthday parties, funerals and religious events. The method she uses is traditional Chinese shadow puppets.

With the help of a small army of specially made puppets, a single light bulb and a large cotton screen on which the shadows will be projected, the master puppeteer, who accompanies her to all the shows, narrates classic stories of former wars; of love and the inevitable intrigues and betrayals. The puppet performances are accompanied by a group of four musicians, almost all of them well past their prime but with a great understanding and love of the traditions involved in this type of storytelling. Sung and recited in ancient Chinese, and following very rigid guidelines, this artistic style is called Lao Qiang (皮影戏) and has been passed down through the generations from those former times. Now Mrs Zhang Xiangling and her team perform for the ordinary citizens of the small villages surrounding Mt Hua, but originally shadow puppetry was an entertainment for kings as well as the commoners.

Everything happens in a tiny tent, erected one feet from the ground with a scaffold supports. Within this structure, the members of the troupe carry out the show hidden from the audience behind the screen. Enthusiastic members of the public try to spy what happens behind the screen and look through the holes in the tarps covering the structure, meanwhile, out front on the big cotton screen, the adventures are enacted. The story narrative is sung in a lost dialect, blasted out through screaming megaphones.

As the show progresses, the attention of the audience ebbs and flow, like a coastal tide. Some people take the opportunity to chat; some of the kids are sleeping after few minutes, and some (mainly older) people sit enthralled as this traditional story telling unfolds in front of them. Passersby’s stop and look, attracted by the light from the cotton screen as moths to a flame…

“The "cartoons on TV will never have the spirit of a puppet…”- says Zhang Shimin, builder and master puppeteer "…the shadow of a puppet is alive!" he says while stretching and shrinking the shadow of a warrior puppet on the screen.

Once the show is finished, encores are demanded of the artists despite the audience it’s being seated for three hours on hard wooden benches where no one would willingly sit for more than five minutes. Then, the show is finally all over. With two hundred yuan in their pockets (about twenty-four euros) and two performances more under their belts now it’s time for the troupe to load the van and go home. The puppets, all made from cuts of animal skin, will be stored between cardboard protectors to prevent them from moisture until the next show. The musical instruments, in their cases, will be packed between the tent poles and other props and Mrs. Zhang Xiangling, who could not fit into the cab of the van will also climb up into the back for a bumpy ride home. -- Oriol Casanovas

Family scripts from linneage tradition. Mr.Zhang Ximin is a 10th generation Lao Qiang artist.


The Erhu (or Chinese violin) is a kind of two-stringed bowed musical instrument.


Lao Qiang


On the way to Xiying village


Manteling the stage


Shadow puppets


Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, shadow puppets


Lao qiang, Shadow puppets


Shadow puppet, Lao Quiang, Qinqin


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets


Lao Qiang, Shadow puppets