Aesthetic Ideas on Puppetry in Asia

Written texts on Asian puppetry are limited prior to the 20th century. Major texts – like Sanskrit drama’s Natya Sastra (Treatise on Dance Drama), dated between 200 BCE and 200 CE and attributed to Bharata Muni, or hermeneutic treatises on Japanese by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) or his nephew Komparu Zenchiku (1405-1468) – propose ideas. While having some relation, they do not fit puppetry’s customary practice. Sanskrit drama and catered to more elite classes striving for purity of rasa (India’s eightfold emotional “essences” including the erotic, comic, pathetic, angry, heroic, terrible, repulsive, and wonderful) or pursuit of yugen or monomani (Japan’s ephemeral beauty or emotional realism). By contrast, puppeteers more often developed strategies that could unite audiences across class and mixed comic and serious to reach a varied group.  Occasionally references to aesthetic intention are found in writings of literati, but the statements do not come from puppeteers themselves. Manuals including instructions for performers are found for 20th century Japanese [Bunraku] ([ningyō jōruri]), Balinese [wayang] (Dharma Pawayangan [Book of the [Dalang]]), and other writings, but usually deal with practical dictums, story, and mantric formulae rather than overt aesthetic statements.

Given the many cultures of Asia with diverse linguistic, political, social, and economic groups spanning a thousand years of recorded puppet history, one size does not fit all. This discussion will merely introduce some broad ideas focusing on pre-1950 traditional Asian forms recognizing that in the last fifty years there has been great experimentation and Western and post-colonial mixes with indigenous philosophies.

Some Funadmental Ideas

Different areas of Asia have diverse terminology, which is used to describe artistry. Only selected terms can be presented here.


Indian puppetry does have some relation to the rasa theory as developed in the Natya Sastra. But rather than choosing one specific rasa for an individual performance, as a Sanskrit dramatist was instructed to do, puppeteers tend to mix three of the bhava (sentiments that lead toward rasa) – usually love, humour, and heroism – to give rise to bhakti (religious devotion toward a particular deity) in the heart of the viewer. While Indian performance can tell a variety of episodes, contemporary performance often praises an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Performer/narrators (bhagavat) use the text of local language versions of the god’s stories to move viewers into religious fervour that causes them to praise Vishnu in one of his ten manifestations. Humour with sexual overtones is delivered through the clown.


A basic dichotomy in Java, Sunda and Bali is alus (refined) and kasar (coarse). The term alus is associated with refinement and the palaces. A well-made puppet, a complex and roundabout way of speaking, and circling movements in dance are alus. By contrast, roughness, forthright statements of intention, straight lines in movement, and lower class individuals are kasar. The system may originally derive from perceptions of the spirit world: gods, being complex, move in circular patterns; demons, being simple, move in straight lines. Alus princes, like [Arjuna], are the heroes and their sidekick is the kasar clown, [Semar]. While comic sections may be kasar, a good performance contains alus material as well, approximating the complicated world within which we exist.

Another concept which applies to puppet performance is ramai (busy, exciting). A ramai performance is one where the audience is large and engaged, the show is animated, and many other activities (selling, gambling, eating) take place around it. Such an atmosphere banishes boredom, prevents intrusion by malevolent spirits, and makes the atmosphere extramundane.


Chinese puppetry as presently constituted closely relates to Peking opera (jingju) and other regional opera forms in its synthesis of story, song, dialogue and movement. As in Indonesia, roundness (yuan xing) is the preferred mode in movement as well as music. While one way of characterizing theatre is serious (da xi) and comic (xiao xi), perhaps more useful for puppetry is the distinction of wu (martial, including acrobatic and fighting arts) and wen (domestic, highlighting emotion and singing). The repertoire is divided into plays that are considered martial (featuring epic or historical chronicles) or domestic (closer to everyday life of the 16th-19th centuries). Wu and wen derive from Daoist thinking which divided the world into yang (male/winter/martial) and yin (female/summer/domestic) categories. The consummate puppeteer is capable of both.


In Japan the play categories are jidaimono (history tales) and sewamono (domestic tales) which roughly parallels and is probably borrowed from the wu-wen division of China. The history plays took the jo-ha-kyū (beginning-middle-climax) structure of as their model, and found their emotional highpoint, like , in the middle, ha, section. In history plays the hero must often sacrifice family for his master. The domestic plays are exemplified by the work of [Chikamatsu Monzaemon] (1653-1725) who initiated a new, three-act play structure for his sewamono tales which he borrowed from current scandals, but set in the past to pass censorship. A favoured theme in domestic plays was the impossible love of a young man and his geisha beloved who end their struggle against society (which will never let them live happily ever after) by taking a night journey (michiyuki) that culminates in their love suicides as they bid farewell to this floating world. Caught in the grip of a society where giri (duty) and ninjō (human feeling) were eternally at odds, both the history and domestic plays reflect figures passionate for another incarnation which would allow more scope for personal feelings than society allowed.

Performers speak of hara (energy or power located in the abdomen) that must be tapped for correct puppet manipulation and kokoro (heart) that is needed to bring forth correct expression for manipulation, narration, or music. The source of these ideas can be traced back to religious ideas.   

The Primacy of Epics

In the beginning was the story. In Asia we find [storytellers] (sometimes blind singers and other times Hindu, Islamic or Buddhist proselytizers) who are believed to be the antecedents or inventors of puppet genres. To gain a greater audience, tradition holds, pictures were added, leading to scroll recitation which is found all over Asia from etoki of Japan to pien of China, to wayang beber of Indonesia, to pabuji pars of India or the pardeh of Iran. Soon, we are told, figures were cut from the frame and manipulated. Wood puppets from temple facades were replicated by carvers and made to dance the stories. The stories are the Great Stories which form the moral and religious backbone of the culture.

In India and South East Asia the [Ramayana] and the [Mahabharata] are the favoured. China chose the epic story of the [Monkey King]’s Journey to the West (Xiyou ji) of Wu Cheng’en, or White Snake (Baishe zhuan), the tale of a snake woman in rebellion against Chinese Monkhood’s patriarchy, or stories of men who struggled for justice in The Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi yanyi) or The Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan). In Japan tales of loyal samurai of the Heike clan or mystical tales of Princess Joruri were preferred.

Chanting a great story is everywhere seen as the seed of the puppet art. Even the love episodes that came to dominate in many areas from the 16th century are not everyday romances, but loves that transcend death and return in another incarnation or affairs like that of the Indian God [Krishna] and the human Radha where divine love and human eroticism are hopelessly intertwined. The strong narratives demanded visuals, music, and movement. Expression is essentialized into beautiful figures that are conventional representations of type (male, female, demon, etc.); only slight changes of costume or headgear distinguish one hero or lady from the next. The abstract puppet demanded sound and movement similarly stylized into music, chanted narrative, and dance. The chanter/narrator retains primacy in the art. He structures the performance, delivering the narration and sometimes delivering all the dialogue of the multiple voices. He leads the musicians who follow the dance-like movement of the figures, inserting sound effects. He cues the puppeteers (if he is not himself the manipulator) and improvises jokes.

Puppet, Prototype of Actors’ Theatre

A recurring idea in Asian performance is that puppetry is more perfect or older than theatre by humans. We encounter this idea universally in Java’s [wayang] which is seen as antecedent of human dance-drama. We find it in Thailand where court scholar Dhaninavat argues that mask dance (khon) evolves from [shadow] puppetry. Indian scholars note the name of the head of a Sanskrit drama troupe is a sutradhara (puller of strings) and offer the idea that Sanskrit drama may be modelled on a puppet prototype. Koreans note that the puppet play and the mask dance (talchum), the two oldest dramatic forms, share characters and scenes. Japanese scholars note that for a hundred years as  ningyō jōruri (see [Bunraku]) and kabuki interacted, the puppets were the “art” from which the entertainment-oriented kabuki borrowed one third of its repertoire. Actors and musicians across Asia share ideas with puppetry. This is especially evident in the movement of the actors. Learning Sundanese dance of West Java, the teacher will demonstrate the wooden jerks of the wayang golek puppet to help the learner master the dance style. The floating aesthetic of the Javanese dancer is borrowed from the shadow theatre. The Burmese dancer hangs her body from the shoulder yoke and manipulates her limbs to fall with gravity approximating the yokthe pwe marionettes. Japanese odori  of kabuki and the buyō of geisha dance emulates jōruri dance. The aesthetic of the major dance genres of Asia seems to have been invented on the puppet stages. Because puppets are more artful, the good actor is puppetlike.

Popular Religion and the Aesthetic of the Puppet

The patterns we perceive may come from the Asian religious background that supports art, especially puppetry, as revealing the extramundane nature of things. The West often considers the everyday world is true/real and successful art approximates lived experience. In contrast, a number of Asian religions code the truth of lived experience as illusion since maya (India), the world of “red dust” (China), the “floating world” (Japan) obscure and hide the divine at play. In this mindset, Art’s unreality is its strength. It allows us to sidestep time and leap into the timeless. Art is not enlightenment, but is one of the human practices that approximates it. Both local practices, including animism and shamanism, and transnational religions, including Tantric Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and Sufi Islam, have embraced the arts as allowing a clearer understanding of the cosmos.

Animism, Shamanism, and Tantrism

Christianity sees god as distinct from human who by virtue of the soul has power over the material world and animals. Animism sees cosmic power as less differentiated. The divine and demon may morph into one another and penetrate other beings as cosmic power circulates through all things. For example, sakti (power) in Java is felt to inhere in rocks, waterways, trees, animals, as well as humans. In many Asian areas where puppetry has become popular we find indigenous practices of using objects as the temporary abodes for supernatural forces. The power of puppets comes, in part, from their actual materiality. The leather of the shadow figure still bears the life of the animal and the power of the trees carries into the mask. Shamanism was widespread in South, South East, and North East Asia; puppets and masks have often been used in the past in these areas to represent the dead ancestors or other spirits.

Transnational religions

 In contrast to the Platonic conception of a world of shadows which must be dissipated in order to reach the light, the Asian public is invited to focus on the gesture of the puppeteer, the fusion of the puppet and actor. The interpenetration of the cosmic (the puppeteer-God) and the ephemeral (the puppet-creature) is at the heart of this first art as illustrated, for example, in a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna speaks of “puppets in a game of shadows” manipulated by God, or in the Book of Cabolek, probably written by the poet Yasadipura I (1729-1803) of the Surakarta court in Java, where he compares the body to a puppet. Such an idea is at the heart of Javanese exorcism (ruwatan) and suggests that the access of the puppeteer to spiritual power derives from the act of playing. If the human condition is comparable to that of a doll manipulated by the gods, in understanding this, the puppeteer acquires an almost divine power of exorcism and healing. These conceptions are shared by Mahayana Buddhism, by Hinduism, Daoism, Sufism, and they also have a Tantric basis. Tantra conceives of the material and spiritual worlds as interrelated. It uses the sensual images to trigger or disseminate understanding of cosmic reality. Its methods include yantra (diagrams revealing cosmological principles), mantra (sounds and poetic passages that aid in the achieving of enlightenment), mandala (visual structures developed from simple outlines of the yantra) and nyasa (ritual methods consisting of inscribing on different parts of the body sounds, syllables and images in a symbolic ritual of union between the adherent and the divine, inducing enlightenment). If these concepts seem far removed from aesthetic practices, they have infiltrated many popular arts, particularly between the 6th and 14th centuries, when storytellers-proselytes spread along the land and maritime routes of Asia, leaving their mark on puppetry in different countries.

Each county has its own specifics but one finds common threads. When the play begins (for example, with the murwa or janturan on Java, the sbhalaksana in the gombeyata of South India) there are certain formulas. Also in the kekawen or suluk (Indonesia) or the mangalam in gombeyata there are passages close to mantras. In Burma (Myanmar) or in China there may be yantra or formulas written on the bodies of some figures. The kayon (Tree of Life) used in the puppetry of South East Asia is a mandala image that represents the macrocosm. Again, in the exorcistic rite of the ruwatan in Indonesia and Malaysia the [dalang] reads syllables written on the body of a demon and at the same time exorcises the evil influences from the audience. The words form a mantra which may reference the performance elements – banana log where the puppets are stationed (earth), the lamp (sun), the screen (visible world), etc. – which represent the cosmos, while the individual human is considered to be a microcosm. The syllables and formulas probably have their origin in a cermony of nyasa, a ceremony in which the universe is represented by the individual and which may explain why the puppeteer is sometimes identified with god.

We find colour imagery that relates to a cosmology of the four directions and the centre in South, South East, and North East Asia. For example, in India we have white (east), red (south), blue (west), and green (north); in Java, white (east), red (south), yellow (west), black (north), though these sometimes shift; in Korea, blue/green (east and wood), red (south and fire), white (north and metal), and yellow (centre and earth). Colours are not only linked to elements but to character typology: masculine, feminine, androgyne/clown, warrior and demon. If we set aside the clown, one finds for example in the puppetry of Indonesia we have refined male (alus), female (putri), prime minister (kras), demon king (rawana/denawa) as the major puppet/mask/theatre roles. In Thailand we find prince (phra), princess (nang), monkey (ling), and demon (yak). In China major roles are male (sheng), female (dan), old man (lao, who is sometimes considered part of sheng), and painted face (jing). Musical pieces that relate to these different “types” form the background of the plays. Preferences for a solo narrator who sometimes performs all or most of the puppet types may come from the need to have a single performer who can embody the myriad figures, clarifying the cosmic idea that different characters – human, demon and divine – are all part of the same force.

The character of the clown is another constant across a range of performances. He may be an androgyne as in wayang but he possesses phallic characteristics. The Javanese Semar (“Hidden”), also called Sanghyang Ismaya (“God of Illusion”), is a sample. This clown may link via Mahayana Buddhism to the Chinese chou (clown) or even Hong-yi the phallic figure in Korean [kkoktu-gaksi norum] (ggokdu gaksi noreum). It is also possible that the clown androgynes come from tantric philosophy and that the idea of a mixture of masculine and feminine in each being is a necessary step to realize an enlighted soul. The clown is often considered the most essential character and comedy often triumphs over the epic story in performance, but unlike in the West where the comedy is often denigrated, especially South and South East Asian areas give the clown the pride of place. He speaks for the “little guy” and has agricultural links. Sex and scatology are as natural to the clown as political critique at injustices. But in certain areas he is considered the hero or even divine which gives comedy a status it may not have in all areas.  

Contemporary Theatre

The religious ideas discussed in this section are often vestiges today. Puppeteers do not necessarily know what they are saying when they intone an old mantra, but they know their words are powerful. They may not know why they use a particular voice and energy for the demon or damsel, but they know the system of types works. Religions fade, but the aesthetic formed by them remains.

Today we see [Muppet]-like performances in a Thai [television] show. We see Vietnamese [water puppets] extolling the egalitarian ethos of the post-1975 socialist state. We see Marxist puppeteers singing songs of social significance in West Bengal, India, and the contemporary elite of Bangkok revisiting Thai aristocratic identity in the theatre of hun krabok dolls. Young Balinese dalang zip across wide shadow screens seated on skateboards as they cure post-traumatic stress from the Bali Bombing using shadows, exorcistic stories, and PowerPoint projections. Though no single aesthetic dictum can be applied to this rich and varied work, most of these masters of the present are aware of their legacy. They might still agree, as those who carried the theatre of shadows and dolls across Asia, that puppetry as an aesthetic practice is important because it divides us from the everyday illusory “self” and in music, dance, and larger-than-life images allows encounter with a self, more real and more powerful. If we consider today the traditional aesthetics – colours, costumes, musical tastes, dramatic styles – they have been forged, like the Monkey King was in the alchemical furnace of Lao-Tsu’s Daoism or refined like Hindu Vaisnavite [Hanuman] was in the creative frames of Thai Buddhism or Java’s Sufi-inflected Islam.

If we consider contemporary aesthetics we would need to include Asian reformulations of Western theorists from Stanislavski to Brecht, accepted initially among the elite in the early 20th century and reformulated and shared through many groups. As aesthetics have become shared global dialogues, Asian theorists have contributed to the conversations. In 1970, for example, in the field of robotics Japanese theorist Masahiro Mori introduced the idea of the “uncanny valley” – that as a figure’s behaviour becomes more human it will create greater empathy until a point where a feeling of revulsion will occur. He termed the point between the “barely human” and “fully human” the “uncanny valley” and he saw the bunraku figure as a point on this graph. More recently, he has pointed to images of the Buddha as having a beauty that surpasses life: once more articulating an aesthetic that comes from his Japanese cultural frame. His work has had considerable impact on robotics and the use of puppets in theatre as in the robot-human theatre of Hirata Oriza and others. This is only one example of contemporary Asian theorization.

“By dividing the self into the stylized puppet types, we transcend our reality and are free to play in the aesthetic realm. We step to the centre and become the puppetmaster who moves in and through all that was, and is, and is to come.”


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