Shadow Play (aka Shadow Puppetry) is a traditional storytelling medium dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC ~ 220 AD) that animates opaque and semi-translucent articulated figures behind of an illuminated screen to create the illusion of life. Legend has it that the emperor Wu of Han was devastated when his beloved concubine died of an illness, and summoned his court officers to do the impossible: bring her back to life. The officers made a moving silhouette that resembled the concubine out of 11 pieces of leather, which they moved in front of an oil lamp to bring her back to “life”. The entertaining shows eventually caught on, and currently more than 20 countries are known to have shadow show troupes.
The Longjiang Shadow Puppet troupe has been around since the early 20th century, reaching the apex of its popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. Like many Shadow Puppet shows before them, the Longjiang troupe was dealt a severe blow in the face of stiff competition from more contemporary entertainments, but elementary schoolchildren are revitalizing this ancient art form with surprising enthusiasm. Gathering on weekends at the Harbin laboratory, they’re experimenting with simple robots, which manipulate the puppets in simple skits. Third generation Longjiang troupe members are working with the program, which gives them hope that their beloved traditions can gain a foothold in the modern world.
The Harbin Laboratory’s Shadow Puppet project began in 2005, with the objective of performing at RoboCup events. Three years later, their hard work has earned them several international awards. Contrary to what some might think, robotics technology is helping to preserve cherished cultural traditions, with Osaka University using Wakamaru during the Osaka Tenjin festival, and Harbin lab using robots to perform Shadow Play (video after the break).