Editor’s Note: China’s rapidly developing economy—and resulting consumer culture—is re-popularizing one of the country’s oldest folk arts: “Like most things in China, where there is profit, there is counterfeit.”

In 2011, while researching traditional Chinese shadow puppetry for a year in rural mainland China, I took a “sanity break” in the megacity of Shanghai. After a day of rest, I made my way to one of Shanghai’s biggest outdoor markets at the Yuyuan Garden and Bazaar. There, in the swarming crowds, a shadow puppet stall –I never really stop working—caught my eye. I went in and glanced at a few pieces, checking to see whether any of them were actually handmade. In a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, they almost never are.

When the stall’s owner wandered over, I made my initial probe: “Are these handmade?” “Of course they are,” the seller replied. “No, they’re not,” I said with a slow shake of my head. It was a drill I was familiar with. I patiently explained how I knew these leather shadow puppets were machine-made instead of hand-cut because I was a shadow puppet researcher who had apprenticed with some of the best masters in the country. I told him I had cultivated my connoisseurship in collections and museums alike. The seller, predictably, stood his ground for a few minutes and, when he was sure there was no convincing me, cut in with, “Okay, but would you like to buy one?”

The seller’s reaction came as no surprise. China has long since perfected the art of the knock-off, the faux, the off-brand. I, myself, am the proud owner of a pair of $15 “Diesel” designer jeans and a $10 “Marc Jacobs” bag. Part of me has always appreciated this about my adopted country: China has an unabashed ability to subvert the designer label or coveted trend, like a modern day Communist Robin Hood – giving the people accessible brand names and bling. Who needs the real thing anyway, when no one can tell the difference?

China’s new burgeoning middle class has sent consumerism into hyper-speed: Average consumer spending has tripled in the last eight years from 60,000 to almost 200,000 RMB ($30,000 USD).Tripled. In eight years. With their new shopping fever, the market for “designer” jeans and other high-priced bling has skyrocketed along with everything else. Curiously, a growing nostalgia for China’s recent past, which can feel like the distant past at the rate the country is changing, has sparked a growing demand for its folk arts as well. For better or worse, shadow puppetry is in the mix.

Admittedly, Chinese shadow puppetry could use the attention. For over 1,500 years, the art form has been the center of community happenings: birthdays, weddings, funerals, house raising and annual festivals. Though the practice began in northern central China, by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) it had pretty much spread to every corner of the country. The troupes, historically, were repositories for all relevant local and national stories, responsible for keeping them safe and disseminating them through beautifully articulated shadow puppets and musical storytelling. Prior to the fall of Dynasties in 1911, you could wander into almost any rural village, on any summer night, and find an audience entranced by these dancing shadows. China’s political changes within the last century, the recent move towards a capitalist economy, massive urban migration, and a push towards modernity have all left shadow puppetry irrevocably battered. Practitioners who have not passed away or gone back to full time work elsewhere are surviving on sparse show schedules and meager shadow puppet sales. The few artists left have no apprentices to inherit the tradition.

China’s recent consumer boom seemed, at first, to be shadow puppetry’s knight in shining armor. Shadow puppets are lucky to be one of only a handful of ‘national treasures’ that can also serve as trendy apartment decor. But, like most things in China, where there is profit, there is counterfeit.

Machine-made shadow puppets are laser-cut from leather, poorly painted, and made for rock-bottom prices. Tourists can’t tell the difference. For that matter, neither can locals. Shopkeepers easily pass off these new knock-offs for the price of their handmade counterparts. Between 2008 and 2011, the shadow puppet market has shifted from around 10% machine-made to almost 90%.

Ostensibly, there’s no problem with machine-made objects or mass-produced copies of an original. However, there is an issue with the exploitation of the public’s lack of expertise and knowledge to sell mass-produced machine-made objects as something they are not. On eBay, dozens of “handmade” vintage puppets are on sale for much more than the few dollars they cost to make. Meanwhile, a newer, more complicated threat has been creeping in on the shadow puppet horizon. It’s a sneakier, smarter knock-off that’s been duping the best of them. China’s consumer market is now beginning to create hand-cut faux antique pieces.

I first encountered these when I visited a dealer friend at the legendary Pangjiayuan ‘Antique Market’ in Beijing. After we chatted about regional styles, going prices, and machine-made puppets (of which he had a few), he took a long pause and gave me a sideways glance.

“See that puppet up there?” he asked.

“The small Northeastern-style male figure?” I asked.

He nodded. “What do you think?” he asked.

I walked to the Beijing-style puppet hanging on the line and looked closer. It was hand-cut, not machine-made. I looked closer again. It had a dark patina on it, which usually indicates usage, wear, and age—as smoke lanterns and oil from human hands darkens the leather—but this one was different. It looked slightly dusty and crusty, instead of well worn. Upon even closer inspection, I could see that there were no additional wear marks on any of the control rod connections or joints.

“What is this?” I asked, not wanting to make a claim I would be too embarrassed to retract.

He paused for a long time, and then said,  “They’re fake old puppets.”

While the introduction of machine-made shadow puppets hurt the market for authentic hand-cut puppets, the issue was largely contained to the puppet makers. Faux antique shadow puppets, while seemingly just a horse of another color, are actually much more problematic. They confuse the quality of connoisseurship for newer curators and collectors, making masterfully cut shadow pieces harder to recognize and champion. The fake antiques destroy the integrity of the shadow puppet market as a whole and undermine the validity of mastery in craft. Those who are selling fake antiques can do so at a bargain, making the genuine antiques unsellable at their true value.

The addition of fake antiques to the already overwhelmed machine-made shadow puppet market continues to negatively affect the remaining shadow puppet making masters. The lack of demand for their work has destroyed their livelihood across the country. More importantly, it has destroyed the financial viability of the master-apprentice system, which means we may be witnessing the end of an art form. Without a future of financial viability for shadow puppetry, what apprentice would give their life to this work?

Even though the future looks bleak, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage project, established in 2004 to support craftspeople and live performance traditions around the world, has increased awareness and validity for shadow puppetry. Though the efficacy of the project itself remains in question, there is hope that the relatively new program will continue to hone capacity and competence.

But on the whole, support for the shadow puppet and folk artists within China remains low. With such a race towards progress, no one is winning any favors by supporting peasant craftsman and the dying folk arts. For myself, my work will continue; seeing the real and the fake, the old and the “new old,” has repeatedly set me on course. We owe it to the incredible masters who have given their life to doing it the hard way, every day.

Further Reading/Viewing

General Information about Chinese Shadow Puppetry:




UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Project:



China’s Issues with Fake Culture:





China’s Fading Traditional Culture:



Image credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via flickr