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Special Feature

Varying Discourse and Use of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Shaanxi Huaxian Shadow Puppets

Florence Padovani
p. 39-48


Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as an administrative category has been used in Chinese official discourse since the early twenty-first century. It tends to standardise in a systemic vision what practices should or should not be included in the updated definition of Chinese tradition. The role played by the central government is of utter importance, drawing on China’s administrative and legal framework. However, local dynamics and reasoning sometimes occur off the beaten track. Shadow puppet troupes are a good example of a long tradition all over China that almost disappeared during the Maoist era, but which was resurrected during the 1980s, and is now listed internationally as a form of ICH. In Hua County (Huaxian), Shaanxi Province, one of the practitioners discussed in this article belongs to a family renowned for its puppets, and he has participated in the revival of shadow puppet performances. The second case examined here is of a troupe performing in the Yongxing Fang tourist area in Xi’an. The leader of the troupe is registered on the list of heritage transmitters at the provincial level. The discourse and practice of these two troupes exemplify different attitudes towards official recognition. Analysing the Huaxian shadow puppets, I will try to find out if ICH is only a new label stuck on an older tradition or if it has a deeper influence on the survival of living traditions.

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Editor’s notes

Manuscript received on 19 August 2022. Accepted on 19 February 2023.


Full text document will be published online on March 2024.


Chinese management of ICH
Forced standardisation versus local particularities
The reemergence of a practice through arts and crafts
Different ways of taking advantage of the new label

First lines


In the last decade of the twentieth century, Chinese from Taiwan, the diaspora, and the Mainland became interested in puppets, rediscovering a tradition on the verge of extinction. The climax of this trend came in 1993, when The Puppetmaster (戲夢人生 Ximeng rensheng) by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 earned international success and won the Jury Prize at the 46th Cannes Film Festival. Hou’s film tells the story of Taiwan’s famous puppeteer, Li Tien-lu 李天祿, who played himself in the film. The film is a metaphor for the disappearance of Taiwan’s traditional culture. One year later, director Zhang Yimou 張藝謀 won three awards at the 47th Cannes Film Festival for To Live (活著 Huozhe). The director added shadow puppets, which are not part of Yu Hua’s 余華 eponymous novel. They play an important role in the film by expressing the protagonists’ feelings and giving an artistic touch, but contrary to Hou’s film, the puppet shows were only an aesthetic element added to the film. ...

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Bibliographical reference

Florence Padovani, Varying Discourse and Use of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Shaanxi Huaxian Shadow PuppetsChina Perspectives, 132 | 2023, 39-48.

Electronic reference

Florence Padovani, Varying Discourse and Use of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Shaanxi Huaxian Shadow PuppetsChina Perspectives [Online], 132 | 2023, Online since 01 March 2024, connection on 10 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Florence Padovani

Florence Padovani is Assistant Professor at Paris 1-Sorbonne University, member of PRODIG research unit. PRODIG, Campus Condorcet, Bâtiment recherche sud, 5 cours des Humanités, 93322 Aubervilliers Cedex, France (

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