Puppetry has been practised for many centuries in Asian countries, especially India and China where it is old and deeply implanted: these two cultures have influenced the puppetry of neighbouring regions. Origins giving importance to puppetry on the continent seem linked with religion or ancestral cults exorcizing negative spirits. Effigies of the divinities or humans, via their figurative representations, were animated to inspire or instruct believers. Manipulators used figures to teach, moralize, and tell exemplary legends and stories with religious import.

In India, Indonesia, and Malaysia there were, traditionally, ritual preparations for a performance that might include invocation of gods and ancestors as part of the opening, especially if the performance were in a temple (India) or rural context (Indonesia, Malaysia). Traditionally, this helped bless the viewers and the presentation: in the past there was sometimes a thin line between ritual and the performance of the puppet play, especially in some of the shadow puppet genres (as in Kerala in India and Indonesia). In China, the puppets were sometimes used in exorcistic rites prior to the performances (see China). While many of these rites are defunct, the aura of the sacred lingers on in certain genres. Additionally, today a rich new tradition of puppetry carrying social, political, educational or entertainment functions has arisen. Sometimes, it is found in areas where religiously focused puppetry existed in the past.

Flat figures used to throw a shadow on a screen (shadow puppets) and three- dimensional figures manipulated by strings to simulate human movements are, arguably, some of the oldest, most important, and valued Asian genres. These forms will be emphasized in this article, recognizing that other techniques coexist and can dominate as in Japan (Bunraku / ningyō jōruri) or Vietnam (water puppets).

Shadow Theatre

Shadow theatre seems equally old in India and China. Some argue that it originated in Central Asia and from there radiated to other countries: to India and China and South East Asia, and also (through the intermediary of the Turks) to Mediterranean nations of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe where it became an indigenous popular art (see Karagöz). While Indian influence is clearly visible in the shadow theatre of South East Asia – most notably, in the repertoire – actual practice of shadow puppetry remains more important and pervasive in the South East Asian region. Here, transmissions were probably never a one way borrowing, and China and the Islamic world’s shadow genres have interacted with Indian strains in this area in multidirectional flows over long periods. Chinese influences even reached the West: for example, in France, one spoke of “Chinese shadows” (see Shadow Theatre).

All sorts of legends, myths, and quasi-historical tales tell of the origin of shadow puppets in each country and actual origins are obscure. For example, although shadow puppetry in China may be over 2,000 years old, the oldest written proof of its existence is found only in the 10th century Song Dynasty, where it is mentioned as an entertainment of aristocrats. In China the practice in the earliest periods is tightly linked with Taoist and Buddhist magic and religion.

In China the shadow theatre becomes linked with popular ancestor cults, exorcisms, and rituals. (Even European languages use “shadow” as a zone or idea to denote the spirit of the dead.) Shadow puppetry was found in rural areas where performances were linked to celebrations to protect food crops or to serve as offerings or prayers addressed to the divine, or presented at the times of a wedding or funeral. Buddhism seems to have some links with or preferences for shadow puppetry and helped in its spread in China. The sutra (Buddhist texts) became linked to a genre called sermon scrolls (pien wen or “transformation texts”) which were performed by priests or laity at festivals and included the showing of images, the delivery of story, and music. Perhaps the performances for funerals evolved into presentations to commemorate the dead. Authors of plays in later periods may have chosen themes from the historic battles and dynastic epics. Shadow puppetry was a genre of prestige due to the support of royalty and aristocratic patrons.

The Chinese shadow theatre seems to have evolved for the most part without much outside influence (though some argue it came to China itself from Central Asian groups’ animistic practices). But the countries of South East Asia, in contrast, shared significant knowledge of the codes of Indian arts. Though some Middle Eastern Muslim codes banned figural representation, these were not a part of local Islam until a late 20th century rethinking of the local Muslim religion under Sunni influence began to question the widespread use of shadow puppets in the Islamic countries. It is possible that shadow puppetry was introduced from India to Sumatra during the Sriwijaya period (7th-13th centuries) and then spread to Java, moving from there to Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia during Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in the areas. The themes to the present are often the Ramayana but also the Mahabharata (especially in Indonesia where shadow theatre remains vibrant today).

Today in China and on Taiwan shadow puppetry is preserved and can be lively. In Thailand and Cambodia shadow puppetry is conserved due to its links to the royalty of the past. In Malaysia shadow puppetry is currently under threat due to its perceived “non-Islamic” elements. In India it only survives in rural areas where tradition and religion maintain it. However, younger artists in all these countries may also use shadow figures in modern theatre experiments or avant-garde visual installations. Although the art is old, interpretations can be very new.

String Puppetry

References to marionettes or string puppets date from about the same time in both China and India and may have been diffused from these countries by performers who set up their performance booths and puppet stages wherever they found a receptive public. In Fujian in south-east China the genre has existed for a thousand years. In Rajasthan in north-west India it gave birth to genres which include many specialty acts (see Kathputli Ka Khel). In Sri Lanka to the south of India, the marionette theatre is a traditional art which remains vibrant at the beginning of the 21st century. In Myanmar (Burma) it was a major tradition which is currently experiencing a revival.

In India and China the skilled puppeteers coordinate the complex movements of figures of wood and strings, the dialogue, and the singing. Thereby they seem to “breathe life” into the figures seen by the viewers.

The plays largely exist in the oral tradition and are usually learned by heart through multiple hearings. The craft was traditionally mostly transmitted in family lines.  Improvisational possibilities and adapting the performance to political circumstances during the public performance are important and were learned via the oral tradition.

The final element indivisibly linked to most traditional puppet plays is comedy. From the most ancient period there has been a buffoon – the vidusaka in India or the god-clown Semar in Java. This figure is comparable to the European clown figure (Hanswurst, Kasper, Kasperl, Pulcinella, Polichinelle, Petrushka, Pimprle, Punch, Gašparko, Vasilache, Vitéz Lászlo, Mester Jakel, Jan Klaassen, Don Cristóbal

…or Guignol). According to some theories, this clown character has a common origin and diffused from Asia via Turkey.

Contemporary marionettes may use traditional techniques and repertoire or turn to newer stories and non-standard characters, borrowed from varied sources East and West or newly invented.

Other Puppets

Besides these two major genres (flat, two-dimensional shadow figures and round three dimensional string figures) which prevail in many regions of Asia, each country may have its own style of figures. For example, water puppets have long been a specialty of Vietnam.

The hand or glove puppet, which is directly worn on the body, is used in many areas of China. While known in India, today it has practically disappeared there and is largely practised only by itinerant troupes of performers or has been quite recently “resurrected” (see Pavakathakali). Another ingenious form is the finger puppet slipped on the digits of the hand.

Rod puppets have been used in China (where they can be from 30 centimetres to more than a metre and a half large), in India, and Indonesia for a long time. This type of figure comes into being and puppeteers may create novel solutions to the problems the manipulation technique poses. For example, in India we find the best-known rod puppets, called danger putul nach, in West Bengal. Made of moulded clay mixed with crushed rice, figures are mounted on a bamboo rod attached to the manipulator’s belt. The arms are moved with rods and strings.

In Thailand hun krabok (which can be related to South Chinese rod puppet traditions) appeared in the 19th century. A head is mounted on a rod, the body is a cloth bag and the rods for the hands are hidden inside. Rod puppets, called wayang golek, are a vibrant theatre in West Java, Indonesia, where they delight Sundanese speakers with their amazingly lifelike moves and dances. Though not as pervasive in Indonesia as shadow puppetry, this form of rod puppetry has had strong influences on European, American, and Australian puppetry in the 20th century.

Japan has a variety of styles and Japanese puppetry historically links back to some of the itinerant traditions of scrolls, hand (glove) puppetry, or mask traditions which moved all over Asia. However, perhaps the major genre known today is Bunraku (originally known as joruri but now internationally called by this other name). This is a form of direct manipulation puppetry, but goes beyond that classification in that it uses three visible manipulators and participates in various categories. This genre has lost much of its widespread popularity, but the ability and inventiveness of Japanese puppetry has an amazing wealth of plays and techniques addressed to the connoisseur audience. This classical art has influenced a number of Western practitioners.

Mask traditions and body puppets are found in many regions. While we find mask genres where Hinduism and shamanism have prevailed, more developed mask plays are often found where Buddhism has had strength in some period, as in the Himalaya (Bhutan, Nepal, and other areas where Tibetan Buddhism spread); Southern China; Indonesia (where topeng masks flourished on the north coast of Java, Bali, and Madura); Cambodia, Thailand and Laos where mask dance shares techniques and repertoire with shadow puppets; Korea where they appear in mask dances (talchum), and Japan where noh and kyōgen use them. In many of these areas there are links between mask theatre and puppet arts.

Body puppets and large processional figures are widely dispersed. Traditionally these figures might represent religiously linked ideas such as Buddhist lions, male and female ancestral figures or images of the important clown characters. Today such figures can be traditional or modern.


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  • Tilakasiri. Jayadeva. The Puppet Theatre of Asia. Colombo: Department of Cultural Affairs, 1970.
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  • The sources used in this report can also be found in the bibliographies that follow country or technique articles.