In the shadows

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‘There are rats, rats, rats,

Big as alley cats.’

From Scouts rhyme The Quartermaster’s Song

The ancient art of shadow puppetry has long been enjoyed by Scouts. We explore its origins and suggest shapes young people can create using only light and imagination

Words: Aimee-lee Abraham | Illustrations: Rohan Eason

Created by shining a light into darkness, shadow puppetry – also known as shadow play – is one of the world’s oldest and most accessible forms of theatre, and a real favourite among Scouts across the globe.

At their most elaborate, puppets are constructed in separate pieces that are then put together by nimble hands, using strings or wires which can be manipulated to create the illusion of movement behind a lit screen.

But, what makes this art form so special is its accessibility. Puppets can also be created using nothing but your own two hands and a light source, making them the ultimate form of entertainment to while away the small hours on camp, and create magic on a budget.

With a little imagination and practice, even the stuffy interior of a tent can become a cinema screen. All you need is a blank canvas to project your shadow onto, and the glow of a heavy-duty torch to illuminate them. If you’re determined and resourceful enough, even the light from a smartphone can work wonders. And with our handy techniques overleaf to guide you, you’ll soon find yourself morphing into a master puppeteer. But first: a history lesson.


The first shadow puppets

According to the popular Chinese legend, the first handheld shadow puppets likely developed in ancient China, during the rule of Emperor Han Wudi of the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220).

The origin story begins with the death of the emperor’s lover, Lady Li. Devastated by her passing, the great ruler found himself immobilised by depression and loss.

Desperate to remain in power, aides scrambled to save their ruler from the depths of grief, but nothing worked. Until one day, when a trusty advisor saw some children playing with parasols under the midday sun.

Inspired by the vibrant shadows their movements cast across the courtyard, he cut a figure resembling Lady Li from some fabric, and projected her ghostly shadow onto some curtains.

Overcome by the shadow’s likeness to his beloved, the emperor’s spirits began to lift, and, slowly but surely, his health was restored. He ruled for a further 54 years.

Meanwhile, shadow puppetry took off, spreading first to rural China – where it became popular among farmers keen to entertain one another during the off-season – then further afield. Eventually, it reached the torch-lit tents of sleepless Scouts enjoying their first night away from home, two thousand years into the future.


Around the world

Today, the types of stories narrated with shadow puppets varies from country to country.

In Indonesia, wayang kulit –  an epic form of shadow theatre, which can be traced back to the spread of Hinduism in the medieval era – remains a vital part of native culture, with its timeless fables of good vs. evil continuing to captivate tourists and locals alike.

In Turkey, the tales of Karagöz and Hacivat – a duo representing the conflict between the working masses and the elite – still hold a place in public life thousands of years after they were first shared. They act as an outlet to express political opinion, and to poke fun at elements of life that are often overlooked and oversimplified.

In Britain, the puppet shows which once dominated Victorian theatres and homes are now few and far between. But, in tents across the country, there is a flickering glimmer of the past. Whether they know it or not, Scouts can play a small part in keeping this tradition alive, every time they turn on their torches.


Cow (Bos taurus)


  1. Just as no two humans have the exact same finger print, no two Holstein cows have exactly the same pattern of black and white spots on their bodies.
  2. Cows have an excellent sense of smell, and can detect odours up to six miles away.
  3. The average cow chews around fifty times per minute. That’s seventy two thousand chews per day!


Dog (Canis lupus familiaris)


  1. Dogs’ eyes contain a special membrane, called the tapetum lucidum, which allows them to see in the dark. This is why their eyes sometimes appear to glow as night falls.
  2. Dogs curl up in a ball when they sleep due to an age-old, evolutionary instinct. In the wild, this action would have helped them to keep warm, and protected their vital organs from lurking predators.
  3. Three dogs (from First Class cabins!) survived the sinking of the Titanic – two Pomeranians and one Pekingese.


Goat (Capra aegagrus hircus)


  1. A baby goat is called a ‘kid’. When a goat gives birth, it’s known as ‘kidding’.
  2. Goats have rectangular pupils, giving them a fuller range of vision than humans and other animals with rounded pupils.
  3. Abraham Lincoln kept two spritely goats throughout his time in office, called Nanny and Nanko. They were particularly beloved by Lincoln’s son, Tad, who used them for chariot rides around the White House.


Pig (Sus scrofa scrofa)


  1. Extraordinarily intelligent and insightful, pigs are widely accepted as being smarter than young children of at least three years of age, dogs, and even some primates.
  2. Wild pigs play an important role in managing ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity. By rooting, they disturb the soil, and create areas for new plant colonisation. They also spread fruit plants by dispersing their seeds far and wide.
  3. A pig's squeal can be as loud as 115 decibels – three decibels higher than the sound of a supersonic airliner.


Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)


  1. Today we classify the rabbit as a small mammal. Until 1912, it was considered it a rodent.
  2. A rabbit’s teeth never stop growing, but they’re naturally kept short through the everyday wear and tear of chewing.
  3. In the wild, rabbits live in burrows called warrens. These hidden worlds are often far larger and more complex than we realise. One warren in Europe - unearthed by the RSPCA - housed 450 rabbits and contained two thousand individual entrances.


Rooster (Gallus gallus)


  1. Chickens are the closest living relatives to the T. rex. They are notably less scary.
  2. Chickens communicate with more than twenty four different vocalisations, each with a distinct meaning, including warning their friends about different types of predators or letting their mothers know whether they’re comfortable. Kuh-kuh-kuh-kuh-KACK!’, for example, roughly translares as ‘I sense danger’.
  3. Chickens display object permanence – an understanding that when an object is hidden, it still exists. Even young children don’t have this ability.

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