People in ancient India, Indonesia and China and other places used shadow puppet plays for entertainment and religious purposes. One can imagine that stone-age people sat next to campfires and watched stories told on rock walls by shadows cast by using hands or figurines. In China, people staged dramas on screens and added musical entertainment and sound effects. Shadow plays were one of the types of puppet theater that were popular in China before the modern era. Three other types of puppet shows used rod puppets, glove puppets or marionettes on strings or wires. Shadow puppet theater was mainly an evening entertainment. Even in rough camps of troops or primitive villages, the people could entertain themselves by moving figures against a screen or sheet illuminated by a lamp. For the royal courts or the rich people, the performers added refined music and sound effects, and the shadow theater performers might have been highly experienced. Shadow puppet theater was a popular entertainment in China for at least a thousand years, and sometimes it is still seen in different forms for visual effects or entertainment.
At a time when there was no flat-screen TV, people entertained themselves in the evening with shadow puppet theater in many places in the world. A simple lamp, a shelf to hold the figures, and a thin screen was all that was needed for a stage. Things like furniture, pagodas, walls and plants were shown on the screen by placing figurines or figures made of cardboard or leather on the shelf in front of the lamp. The lamp illuminated the screen from behind, and people could move little figurines around for theatrical performances. With added music and sound effects, the performance could be entertaining. These were ancient cartoons that even had a little added color depending on the strength of the light of the lamp. If the figurine was translucent, color could be added to the shadow image on the screen.
It is said that the Mongols who conquered China in the 13th century liked to watch shadow plays in their camps. They took the entertainment with them, and it became a popular entertainment in the Ottoman Empire that arose later in the western part of their territory.
Shadow plays were performed in France when French missionaries returned from China in 1767 and put on performances in Paris and Marseilles. It is said that this is how the shadow theater was introduced to Europe. The shows were popular in France, and they were called Ombres Chinoises (French for "Chinese Shadows") at first. There were some modifications, and the plays were called Ombres Francaises or “French Shadows.” The art was a popular entertainment in Paris during the 19th century. The Cabaret Le Chat Noir ("The Black Cat") produced a number of popular Ombres Chinoises shows in the 1880s. They used very bright lighting for illumination.
Nowadays, plastics, computer controlled lightning and machinery, and modern paint and dyes allow performers to produce bright and colorful shadow figures. They can produce images that are controlled by computers, and these can be used for animation and entertainment effects in shows. It is hard for shadow puppeteers to compete with modern entertainment technologies, but some of them are using modern materials and adopting technology to help stage interesting entertainment in China.