The Chinese Shadow Show

What should we show you in the dark, but shadows? Not such dull phantoms as followed you here, dragging at your heels, but crowds of wonders, half-glimpsed hints of faraway lands.

Behind a hung cloth, we light a lantern, then one by one, the shapes come forth: dancing girls, prancing steeds, rows and rows of soldiers, holding scimitars and pikes; these followed by the imperial menagerie: tigers in cages, tethered falcons, twisting snakes, and, uncoiling from his snout and fangs, all the way back to the point of his tail, a huge dragon, leading a crowd of nobles, mandarins and sages, bustling and bowing to the one who rides in their midst, carried on a palanquin, a canopy above him - the emperor himself, whose ornate outline shows his magnificence, his curved slippers, his great robe, his tasseled crown.

All are shadows, merely shadows. You cannot see their skin, or the color of their clothes, you cannot see the gleam of their teeth, and yet you believe that they are real, that behind that cloth they live in their world, a world seen only in silhouette, a world where it is perfectly natural that they do not turn their heads or meet your gaze, but proudly parade in profile; and so this world seems all the more marvelous, all the more enchanted, because it is follows its own rules, rules unknown to you, and so wonderful – as a lover who hides his thoughts seems all the more alluring, and the priest gives you God only through His Mysteries.

For it is not only here that men are seduced by shadows, and how we treasure outlines we are not obliged to understand, but can take as the shape of something greater, to adore for what it might be, rather than struggling with what is.

Copyright 2008 James B. Chevallier
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