Today, China – officially the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国, Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) governed by the Communist Party of China – is located in East [Asia] and is comprised of twenty-two provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing), and two mostly self-governing administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau).

Puppetry in China

Puppetry, like the human actor’s theatre in China, is a total event encompassing all the arts – including music, song, dialogue, mime, dance, storytelling, martial arts, ritual, visual design, and craft. Puppetry not only educates and entertains, but also materializes philosophy and religious viewpoints, providing viewers with psychological and mental resources. While some Chinese genres no longer exist (for example, [water puppets]), [glove puppets], [rod puppets], iron rod puppets (operated by an iron rod in the figure’s back), [string puppets] (marionettes) and [shadow puppets] survive. While changes come with globalization altering the rural farming culture, which largely sustained traditional puppetry, the art maintains, albeit in new contexts.

This article will also include selected diasporic Chinese performance since, wherever Chinese went, they took their culture. For example, we find Chinese shadow puppets and glove puppets in California where Chinese went to work on the Transcontinental Railway in the 19th century. Glove puppetry in Fujian and Quanzhou styles can still be performed at Chinese Buddhist temples in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, or Taiwan and may have spawned newer traditions as well. Shadow puppetry of Taiwan follows traditional Chinese models. Iron rod puppetry and rod puppetry is found in Thailand among the Chinese population. Perhaps the greatest diaspora of Chinese culture was to Taiwan, which has moved from China to Japan (1895-1945) to Nationalist (1949) control and in combination with the indigenous Austronesian-speaking inhabitants has many Chinese speakers and traditions, including some of the Chinese traditions of temple performances that continue in Taiwan to the present.

In China, performances traditionally would address Heaven, in the form of personages like the Daoist (Taoist) deities and heroes of Baxian guohai (Eight Immortals Crossing the Ocean) and Fengshen yanyi (Investiture of the Gods) or the dutiful son of the Buddhist narrative of filial piety Mulian jiumu (Mulian Saves his Mother) in which Mulian fetches his sinful mother back from hell. Such tales intercede to the divine to enlist help for humans. From its recorded history at the beginning of the Common Era, the art of puppetry – string, glove, or rod – remained linked to ritual and propitious events; but, by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it had also developed important entertainment functions and became closely associated with local [opera] (xiqu) forms.

With the advent of the People’s Republic of China (PRC; Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó, 1949), government support of the theatrical arts began in a consistent manner by forming government troupes out of select private companies and modernization of the repertoire followed government policies in towns. The art as a full-time profession became a reality for large groups of artists in such municipally supported companies. The Cultural Revolution of l966-1976 had important implications. Many of the rural artists of private troupes who continued traditional practices had to destroy their puppets and stop performing, while repertoire of the government supported urban troupes focused on a limited repertoire of politically acceptable works for a few years before they, too, stopped performing.    

Advances and revivals occurred after 1980. New works have since been created, new technologies explored, and preservation of older arts fostered. Ritual connections survive in some rural areas of China and in Taiwan (see [Rites and Rituals]). The Chinese authorities have begun to address threats to this intangible cultural heritage, designating troupes to preserve and further the art since 2006. In Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even among many of the Chinese diasporas that span the globe, puppetry serves as both heritage and a contemporary expression of art.

Origin of the Puppet

Archaeological excavations reveal that Chinese ancient funeral culture had a concept that a person’s soul would not die with his body. The soul continued to exist as a ghost who had continuity with human life. Thus, funerary objects for this spirit would correspond to life’s needs. So for the early emperors in the Shang Dynasty (18th-11th century BCE) and the early part of the Western Zhou Dynasty (12th to 8th century BCE) jade, bronze, musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and swords, but also sacrificed animals and humans as “companions in death” (renxun) made up the entourage. By about the 3rd century BCE, these living beings were progressively replaced in the tomb by statues which could be of great naturalism – as illustrated by the warriors of Qin Shi Huangdi (259-210 BCE) – which could be of straw (zhouling), terracotta, or wood (yong). A human sized figure (193 centimetres) dating from the Former/Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE) was discovered in Laixi district in Shandong. It was articulated in thirteen places with small piercings to adapt multiple movement postures, and silver string was found nearby, perhaps indicating that it was moved as a string puppet. One can arguably date marionettes from at least this period. In the Hunan Province, findings at Mawangdui in Changsha from the same period include elaborately carved and assembled wooden figures of musicians and dancers with distinct postures and expressions. Puppetry researchers believe that there exists a relation between such wooden figurines and the later puppet show.

Noting the close relationship between the “yong” (statues representing sacrificial human subjects in tombs) and “marionette”, we see ritual as an early function of puppets.  From the Ming period (1368-1644), puppetry is intimately linked with magic powers held by the manipulators. The title of “Master” (xiansheng; shifu; shigong), given to puppeteers in some regions, shows the respect toward this role. Actors, though more famous, were not so addressed and their status was traditionally very low, while puppeteers tended to enjoy esteem because their knowledge formerly had links to the shaman, diviner, or Daoist priest. Therefore, if two troupes found themselves at the same performance site, priority and different gestures of respect were given to the puppet troupe. Some argue that the actors’ theatre gestures, body expression, and choreography, particularly those of Jingju (Beijing/Peking Opera), imitate the puppet’s movement. On Taiwan, for example, the principal puppet figure Xianggong (Marshall Tian) is also the patron saint of actors. Fujian (including Quanzhou), and Guangdong (including Chaozhou) are major centres of puppetry arts in China, while shadow theatre flourished in other regions. Ancient texts agree that puppets were a performance prop for funeral ceremonies. The 19th century Western theorists who argued that dramatic art derived from religious rites found their argument supported by Chinese artefacts, texts, and folk rites that continue in some areas to the present.

Historical Evolution

Written sources on puppetry are relatively rare and dispersed. The earliest record is Jia Yi xinshu (New Writings of Jia Yi, 201-169 BCE, Han Dynasty) which says, “While the drum is beaten, the puppets are put on to dance.” Yanshi jiaxun (Yan Family Instructions) by Yan Zhitui (531–591 CE), a literati in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE), recorded, “Guo Tu is commonly referred to as puppet”, which demonstrates that the character of Baldheaded Guo was popular then. Even today, the puppet show of Heyang in Shaanxi Province has a special character named Laibaozi (Bald Head) who is probably the same figure. According to historical texts, we can conclude that puppets manipulated by men were used in China to portray simple stories no later than the Northern Qi period. While Ji Hanshu (Annals of the Han) in the commentary of Liu Chao of Liang (6th century) informs us that “under the Han, the people of the capital created dolls for festival occasions, marriage ceremonies and funerals, and one sang and performed with puppets to the sound of funeral music”. The Tongdian (Comprehensive Institutions), an encyclopedic text of Du You written in 766-801, states, “One made puppets play, sing, and dance. Originally one used puppets during the funeral rites, but toward the end of the 3rd century, people began to use them for all kinds of festivities.” Though the text is written later than the Han period (206 BCE-220 CE), the statement reinforces the idea of a movement of puppets from funeral rites to other events. The more frequent use of puppets probably implies development of more elaborate manipulation techniques with more gestural and movement possibilities, no doubt influenced by the “hundred entertainments” (baixi), which flourished during the Han period and included acrobatics, juggling, and other entertainments. Puppets to the present day perform such circus feats.

Under the Tang (618-907 CE), external cultures influenced China – notably, India. There was a multiplication of music genres and varied styles that influenced each other in unprecedented ways during the Tang Dynasty. Music, dance, and puppetry were especially impacted. Chaoye qianzai (Comprehensive Record of the Affairs in and outside the Court), a sketchbook written by Zhang Zhuo, gives events between the reigns of Wu Zetian (624-705) and Xuanzong (685-762), and tells of a rattling wooden monk holding a begging bowl full of copper coins created by a master artisan. So craftsmanship of “mechanical puppets” had already reached a fairly high level. While two other texts, Kuilei yin (Song on Puppets) and Muren fu (Poem on a Wooden Puppet), tell us respectively of craftsmen’s ability to make lifelike stringed puppets and the adeptness of performances held in the streets and officials’ mansions. Marionettes, rod figures and “ling-disk” puppets (probably automated puppets that danced on plates) were all found in the Tang Dynasty.

With the Song Dynasty came urbanization, resulting in more artisans and local industries: puppetry developed greatly. The popular audience grew and evidence of shadow puppet performance and other puppet genres is found in Bianliang (Henan), situated on the central plain of China and capital of the Northern Song (960-1127), and in Hangzhou (Zhejiang), capital of the Southern Song (1127-1280). There are five types of puppets noted in the period. String puppets (marionettes) with artists Zhang Jinxian and Lu Jinxian famous for the life-like performance of their figures; rod puppets with Ren Xiaosan, Chen Zhongxi, and Liu Xiaopushe holding the crowd spellbound; “gunpowder” (yaofa) puppets, an art linked to fireworks where images packed with powder and arranged on a heat source were lit, exploding the multiple figures performed by Li Waining; [water puppets], already prepared for by the hydraulic automatons in the Tang Dynasty (a form still found in Vietnam) with Yao Yuxian, Sai Baoge, Wang Ji and Jin Shihao as dynamic performers; and “flesh puppets” performed by Zhang Fengxi and Zhang Fenggui though we lack a real description of what the genre was (perhaps children on the shoulders of adults in a sort of mime). References to shadow performances also abound.

Song Dynasty men of letters alluded to puppets in their poems and puppets appear in paintings and artefacts of the era. The painting “A Children’s Puppet Show” by Liu Songnian (1174-1224) shows one child in a simple [booth] manipulating a string marionette as a friend plays a drum and two others watch. “Puppet Play of a Skeleton” by Li Song (1166-1243) shows a skeleton manipulator dancing a tiny skeleton puppet as two children and a woman breast-feeding her baby gaze calmly on this dance of death. The imagery perhaps relates back to Buddhist hell scroll traditions (where Buddhist monks or laity showed and performed sermons on the pains of hell), itself possibly linked to Buddhist use of skeleton characters in the mask dances of the [Himalaya] region. “Puppet Playing a Bronze Mirror” shows a simple [rod puppet] being manipulated by a performer behind a draped piece of cloth. Song Dynasty porcelain pillows from Jiyuan County, Henan Province again show children performing a puppet show.

Though fewer documents about puppetry remain from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1386), Lintian xulu (Records of the Woods and Fields) recorded that marionettes were used in praying for blessings and preventing disasters; Zhu Ming youxixu (Preface to Actors’ Operas) tells of puppeteer Zhu Ming and his impressive playing skills; Puppet Show in Lantern Festival recorded the grand performance scene of puppet shows. The varied repertoire developed by the [storyteller] was filled out with interludes of comic dances, acrobatics, or puppets. War came at the end of the Yuan period, before a new flourishing of puppetry at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), especially in the area of Fujian in south-eastern China.  

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), many new singing styles with different vocal qualities in local operas came into being, and with this regionalization came new kinds of puppet shows. The marionette show in Heyang County, Shaanxi Province, and the Marionettes in Quanzhou Prefecture, Fujian were two typical examples. Though both use string figures, each is distinctive due to differences in vocal style, musical instruments and tunes, language, and local customs. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) produced hundreds of genres of local drama and, for each actor style, puppetry would roughly correspond with the subjects, plays, manners of singing, musical instruments, facial make-up, costumes, and stage property of their counterpart opera shows in the same areas. This is also an important characteristic of Chinese puppet shows.

According to the Ming Shi (History of Ming), a “water puppet show” had performers enclosed within a folded blue cloth, thus forming the imaginary water in a period where water puppetry had been forgotten. Such plays as Eight Immortals Crossing the Ocean and The Monkey King Fights in the Undersea Palace were among watery favourites of the period.

In Quanzhou of southern Fujian, the making of string puppets reached its greatest sophistication, with a single doll manipulated by sixteen to thirty strings. Manipulators used them for fortune telling. In this period the musical genre called pihuang with deca-or hepta-syllabic sung verses, accompanied by the two string bowed fiddle (erhu/huqin), was developed with glove puppetry (budaixi) and influenced a number of actors’ operatic forms. Eventually the schools of Fujian puppetry divided into two main branches: Zhangzhou is the centre of the northern schools, with the puppetry of Longxi particularly noted. The northern repertoire especially features fighting and action plays, and uses beiguan or northern music, with a preponderance of chuigu (percussion) instruments with martial music (wuyue). Quanzhou in the south is more noted for legendary themes and its nanguan or southern music has a more cultured (wenyue, cultural/literary music) feel, with an ensemble of string, wind, and small percussion instruments.

The Ming Dynasty also produced a new type of puppet show called budaixi or glove puppetry. Sometimes, a glove puppet show could be performed by a single manipulator. The “shoulder pole” (glove) puppetry was also created during this period; it was so-called because the operation of the puppets, the dubbing and singing and the playing of musical instruments were all handled by one person – the pole bearer. Due to the wide distribution of this show type, it acquired different names in different regions: in Guangdong province, it was called the “one man show”; in Hunan Province, it was named the “thousand pole show”; in Anhui, it was the “shoulder show”; in Sichuan, the “quilt pole show”; while in Jiangxi, it was the “quilt show”. Apart from the already popular show types, such as rod puppetry, string marionettes, glove puppetry, shoulder pole glove (and possibly rod) puppetry, a new type of manipulation called “iron-rod puppetry” developed during this period.

Under the Manchus’ Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), puppet companies multiplied. With most having their bamboo booth and a troupe of three or four people, they moved from one town to the next. More significant troupes were sedentary, residing in the important urban centres, such as those who advertised themselves as “palace theatre in the large booth” (dagongxi), claiming to have garnered imperial favour. Puppet-building techniques improved, bringing for example greater head mobility. And, under the influence of actors’ theatre, the detailed visual designs of the strong “painted face” or jing characters was stabilized. After the overthrow of the Qing in the 1911 revolution, a wave of modernization followed. In puppetry, this mostly meant improving techniques of sound, décor, and theatre space.

Shadow Puppets (Yingxi)

The story of Emperor Wudi (r.141-87 BCE) of the Han Dynasty tells of his fascination with magical practices. Saddened by the death of his favourite concubine Li, he demanded a Daoist adept to call her back. Supposedly her figure shadow appeared behind some curtains. The illusion restored Li’s departed spirit to the ruler. This “evocation of a soul as a shadow” parallels the three-dimensional figures in graves linked to “ghosts” already noted earlier.

The assertion that this historical incident was the origin of the shadow theatre was only suggested much later than the incident, by Gao Cheng (c.1080) during the Song Dynasty in his Shiwu jiyuan (Origin of Things). Some sources assert that shadow puppetry was imported from India in the 10th century. Wandering Buddhist monks displayed painted scrolls that aided them in telling Buddhist and secular stories known as bianwen (transformation texts) during the Tang Dynasty. Sun Kaidi suggests that these were the precursors to the Chinese shadow theatre found so abundantly during the Song Dynasty. Other conjectures link it to shamanic practices of the Mongols and other tribes operating on the periphery of the Central Kingdom. Still other documents say it emanated from the lower Yellow River basin in the Song period. The latest possible origin would be from the Guanzhong region of Shaanxi Province in the early years of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

During the reign of Emperor Renzong (1023-1063), shadow puppetry became popular in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Gradually “hand shadow show” (creating shadows using hands; see [Hand Shadows]), “paper shadow show” (some refer to the use of screens; some refer to the use of paper shadow figures), and “leather shadow show” (using parchment shadow figures) developed. This produced famous performers and puppet makers. As is recorded in Baibao zongzhen (Compendium of a Hundred Treasures), a puppetry troupe during the Song Dynasty could put on the history plays of the previous 17 dynasties with an impressive collection of 240 pieces of stage properties (horses, city walls, moats, boats, gates, tigers, tables and chairs, figures), forty weapons, and 1,200 heads of figures.

Related to the shadow theatre are two distinct currents of figures created in the mode of shadow figures: that of the north which is often called chuanghua (literally, “flowers in the window”, i.e. paper cuts) and the south which is called deng (literally, “lantern”) in which a frame cylinder, rotated by the heat of the lamp inside, displayed the cut-out figures. By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), people seem to have felt such a close relationship between the shadows and deng, that shadow shows were a preferred form of entertainment during the Lantern Festival (15th day of the First Month of the lunar calendar) in traditional China and were even referred to as deng.

By the Song period, the use and performance sites were becoming somewhat more secular and making puppets was an independent craft. Recurring themes were epic tales inspired by the actions of celebrated historical figures. The shadow performers exploited the great popularity of the stories. Stories that remain popular in all genres to the present are episodes from Fengshen yanyi (Investiture of the Gods), Xiyou ji (Journey to the West; see [Monkey King]), Sanguo zhi yanyi (Three Kingdoms) in which the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu struggle for power, and Shuihu zhuan (Water Margin, also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh), a Robin Hood like tale.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, shadow theatre was introduced into the imperial household. Before the 17th century, shadows were manipulated by strings, but were replaced by rods that are used to the present. There were also a type of shadow theatre in Chaozhou, Guangdong province and Hong Kong called “shadow puppets in relief”: the screen is replaced by a plate of glass and cut-out delicate silhouettes of elaborate figures are manipulated against the pane with rods.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) puppetry reached its high point in the superb design of the puppets, the beautiful voices of the singers, and the wide repertoire. Puppeteers played short versions of the storyteller’s epics and popular romances in commonly understood language, accompanied by the lute (yueqin) or the three stringed sanxian (banjo).

The book Zhongguo yingxi (China Shadow Puppetry) by Jiang Yuxiang divides China’s shadow puppetry into seven traditions based on puppet style, puppet operation, vocal resonance and singing, stage, and musical instruments: 1. Shaanxi and Shanxi, 2.  Luanzhou, 3. Shandong, 4. Hangzhou, 5. Sichuan and Hubei, 6. Hunan and Jiangxi, and 7. Chaozhou. Some groups that formerly were itinerant, were now settled, for example, to entertain the Manchu soldiers during their military exercises. Shadow theatre was routinely under suspicion of subversion, since rebel groups or sects such as for the White Lotus Secret Society (Bailianjiao) in the late 18th and early 19th century frequently used it for propaganda and some believed that shadow figures could be converted into real soldiers. Repeatedly banned, shadow puppetry nevertheless survived.

Around the turn of the 20th century there was a new expansion of shadow puppetry that paralleled new developments in opera. But as the decades passed, wars, political change, and competition of new media (film, television) took their toll on a genre that had long served the traditional faiths and customs of Chinese peasants. Changing beliefs limited performance opportunities.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the form was denounced for being attached to “superstitions” (mixing). By the 1980s, while sometimes found in the provinces – such as Hebei, Sichuan, Gansu, Shanxi and Shaanxi – it became seldom seen in the modern urban centres.

Overseas in Taiwan the use of shadows remained for ceremonial rituals (i.e. to entertain the deities). Among the five troupes of shadow theatre still active in Taiwan, Fu Hsing Ko (Fusingke; Fuxingge) is the most important. The company is led by Master [Hsu Fu-Neng] ([Xu Funeng]).

But in other areas of China the shadow art had become a theatrical entertainment whose audience was disappearing. Individual older artists might remain throughout the country, but the permanent groups in existence were and are few: the artistic troupes of shadow puppets of Hunan (see [Hunan Puppet and Shadow Show Troupe], [Hunansheng Muou Piying Yishu Juyuan]) and Harbin (see [Harbin Shadow Puppet Troupe of Children’s Art Theatre], [Haerbin Ertong Yishu Juyuan Muou Piyingtuan]), and Shaanxi (see [Shaanxi Folk Art Troupe], [Shaanxisheng Minjian Yishu Juyuan]) are examples.

Realizing that this precious heritage was imperilled, researchers and artists have in recent years worked to document, preserve, and extend the art. The [Chengdu Chinese Shadow Puppet Museum] ([Chengdu Zhongguo Piying Bowuguan]) is a major facility behind this effort, and another museum of shadow puppets and marionettes is in Xiaoyi, Shanxi. Shadow puppetry was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006 and governmental departments are taking measures to preserve this time-honoured art. (For a more complete history of the Chinese shadow theatre, see Fan Pen Chen, Chinese Shadow Theatre: History, Popular Religion, and Women Warriors).

Chinese shadow puppetry was developed in the United States in the 1930s by Pauline Benton who founded Red Gate Players and who trained students until the 1970s creating an American legacy of Chinese shadow puppetry, and scholars such as the French Jacques Pimpaneau who researched the art and inspired French puppeteers to explore and research the art (see [Musée Kwok On]).

Marionettes/String Puppets (keileixi; xian’ouxi; tixian mu’ou)

The marionette, called “suspended puppetry” in old literature, is one of the earliest puppet genres and was popular in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). On the Mainland, marionettes have become rare, but they are still found in abundance in Fujian where figures range from 0.85 to 1.20 metres. The characters in richly embroidered costumes are manipulated by a varied number of strings and have almost all the movement capabilities of a human.

The marionette show in Quanzhou, Fujian where the art has reached the highest level of sophistication is nicknamed “celebrating ceremony”. Quanzhou (Fujian) marionettes under Master Huang Yique of the [Quanzhou Marionette Troupe] ([Quanzhoushi Muou Jutuan]), founded in 1952, are about 0.85 metre in height and have 16 to 32 strings, based on the complexity of movements needed. Strings were traditionally 1 metre in length, but now may be 3.6 metres. The repertoire of Fujian string puppetry is large – for example the Luolong che (Luolong Registration, a collection of plays) has 400 titles. The troupe also creates new pieces or adaptations from huaju (spoken drama). Huoyanshan (The Flame Mountain, 1978) is a frequent programme of this group that led the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. While ritual played a significant role in the art until the last century, this group is today a large, artistically focused troupe. The rural troupes in Fujian (and to some extent in Guangdong and southern Zhejiang, north of Fujian) have retained their ritual function. Aside from Fujian, Guangdong, and Zhejiang in southern China, the only other region in China where string puppetry is still preserved is Heyang in Shaanxi, in north-western China.

Overseas on Taiwan there are two types of string figures, which are both intimately tied to exorcistic ceremonies: the northern style (which came from the Fujian area in the mid-19th century) and the southern style (believed to have diffused from Quanzhou [Minnan region] of Fujian in the mid-17th century). These two forms are different in repertoire, musical accompaniment, manipulation technique, and figure size (southern figures are smaller). Both types continue to have a ritual function and entertainment is strictly secondary. The presentation is thought to dispel demons and protect the temple, home, or village. For this reason, a number of puppeteers are Daoist priests and so need a long apprenticeship, an initiation, and devotion to the community. This limits the number of active troupes, as compared to the 600 glove puppet groups in Taiwan. Ten puppeteers are in the troupe of Hsin Fu Hsuan (Xinfuxuan) directed by [Lin Tsan-Cheng] ([Lin Zancheng]). (For a complete study on the puppet theatres of Fujian, see Ye Mingsheng, Fujian keileixi shilun, in Chinese.)

The string techniques of Burma (Myanmar) and other areas of South East Asia are close to the styles in Fujian, which may show the influence that Chinese string puppetry exerted in this region.

Rod Puppets (Zhangtou mu’ou)

Rod puppets have a central rod to hold the head and two sticks for the hands. Hand sticks may be outside of (“external operation”) or under (“internal operation”) the puppet’s costume. The puppets range from almost human sized to very petite.

The origin of rod puppets dates at least to the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, though some argue it is a technique already practised in the 6th century. These “puppets with the head on a rod” or “puppets with outstretched arms” are most popular in Guangdong (Canton in south-west China), but are also spread in Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Sichuan and then throughout China with the exception of Fujian, which remains the domain of string and glove puppet figures. Suzhou (Jiangsu) and Shanghai are other sites. The “internal” rod technique is found in Thailand’s hun krabok seems to have been a result of Chinese diasporic influences. The “external” technique may have influenced the wayang golek rod puppetry of Indonesia, which developed in a region with large populations of diasporic Chinese.

In the past in Beijing there were up to seventy troupes of rod puppeteers and they toured as far as Korea and Japan, calling themselves “palace stage show”, because they had performed at court. However, by 1910, there was only one such group, Imperial Troupe of the Golden Unicorn. Guangdong houses four different schools of rod puppetry.  The principal one was of the Huizhou style that included eight or nine troupes before World War II. The Dongwon school included seven or eight troupes with rough and realistic looking figures. Xiasifu school had eight or nine groups and had a different rod technique with figures that were heavier and, due to the difficulty of manipulation, they had a rod which went all the way to the ground with the puppeteer manipulating from behind. The Xinhui school uses a different dialect. The orchestra is usually eight instruments. The drum (sometimes replaced by a wood block/slit drum) plays diverse rhythms; there are large and small gongs, cymbals, the two-stringed bowed lute, the oboe, and a flute (either straight or transverse). The accompaniment uses Cantonese Opera tunes that became popular from the 17th and 18th centuries throughout the area. It uses an irregular verse and particular musical structure that gives melodies an “ancient” air that goes back to the Tang and the Song periods.

The puppeteers of Guandong claim that the arts of the court of Emperor Minghuang (712-756) of the Tang (protector/patron god of actors and dancers) were adapted for the puppets. Melodies were organized into two types of song, erwang and bangzi, resulting in the many distinct rhythms that can be used for the same melodies as are found in the regional opera forms. Originating in the Yangtze Valley, these two musical styles adopted by puppeteers are also the foundation of the many new troupes that developed in Guangdong. The repertoire is shared with the local actors’ theatre and was called the “Eighteen Plays of Itinerant Artists”, which prevailed until the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) brought the ruin of opera and puppetry, which were implicated in the uprising.  

After the fall of the Manchus in 1911, it was necessary to recreate these eighteen play texts in a dialect close to Mandarin (no longer Cantonese) when plays were revived for the troupe of rod puppeteers. Most of the performances, which were formerly a complete play lasting three or four days in a row, today are presented as individual playlets (scenes excerpted from different plays) in a single evening ending at midnight.  

Just as the human actors’ opera of Sichuan, the rod theatre in Sichuan sports a technique that involves quick “face changing”, where the face transforms through the change of painted facemasks, and the technique of fire spitting. In Sichuan there are four schools of rod puppet theatres: that of the “large wooden head”, widespread in the north of the province; that of “smaller wooden head” which has smaller heads but like the former has movable eyes (and in some instances nose, mouth, eyelids, tongue, and ears) found in Nanyun; the “heads of Jingju” (Opera) dominant between Chengdu and Chongqing; and the “large puppets” of northern Sichuan. These large figures of 1.4 metres in stature and 5 kilograms in weight can only be found in Ma’anchang, Yilong County of Sichuan. Though the Dasheng Troupe was the best known group there in the late 19th century, today Li Siyuan, a fourth generation performer from the Fuxiang Troupe, is the only living exponent of this very large rod puppet art. (See [Sichuan Giant Puppet Troupe], [Sichuan Damuou Juyuan]).

The medium-sized rod puppets are about 0.80 to 1.0 metre in height and are the most widely found type in China today. Troupes like [Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region Puppet Troupe] ([Guangxi Zhuangzu Zizhiqu Muoutuan]), founded in 1956, and [Yangzhou Puppet Troupe] ([Yangzhou Muou Jutuan]), founded in 1957, use this style. The smallest size puppets are 0.20 to 0.26 metre in height, and are mainly employed in the shoulder pole show, by a solo puppeteer who carries his portable stage on his back presenting mostly a comic repertoire with these small figures. Shoulder pole puppetry is perhaps more frequently performed with glove puppets.

Since the 20th century, two troupes in Shanghai – the Red Star Troupe and the Gold Star Troupe – have been renowned for their innovations, sometimes using the shadows of marionettes to create special effects. Their performances were sometimes inspired by the conventions of Jingju (Opera), and sometimes, they replaced traditional lyrics with spoken dialogue. Tales ranging from Western fairytales to histories of the Long March were presented with rod puppets. Rod puppets are the most commonly performed type of puppet in the government-sponsored professional troupes today.

Glove Puppets (Budaixi)

The “cloth sack” puppets (budaixi) or glove (hand) puppets (shoutou [also shoutao] kuilei) can also be called zhangzhongxi (“theatre in the palm of the hand”) or xiaolong (“small basket”). This form is a compact, portable figure (0.27 to 0.40 metre) that originated in Fujian province in the 17th century. It is said that a literatus named Liang Binglin, when he failed to pass the imperial examination, had a dream where a divinity revealed to him that “fame was in the palm of his hand”. Taking this as an oracle, he presented himself at the exam yet again, but without success. One day he assisted at a string puppet performance and had the idea of animating the figures with his hand. He succeeded in this project, and given his literary background, he was able to compose plays that were widely applauded. Thus, the prophecy was realized.

The art spread primarily in Fujian and then to the island of Taiwan, and became the most widespread form of theatre there. The Fujian glove puppet repertoire includes old plays like Baishe zhuan (White Snake), Yuzanji (Tale of the Hairpin), Mulian jiumu (Mulian Saves his Mother, one of the tales which was “in the [three] baskets” of Buddhist tales and teachings brought to China, and which has been known at least since the Song Dynasty). The texts “not in the baskets” are adaptations of the celebrated novels.

According to legends, glove puppetry originated in the Ming Dynasty and prevailed in the Qing Dynasty. It is popular in Fujian’s Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and Xiamen regions, as well as via diasporas in Taiwan and South East Asia, where in Indonesia budaixi is commonly called wayang potehi. Glove puppetry is divided into the northern and southern traditions. The northern tradition is popular in the Quanzhou area. In music and voice, it follows Liyuan Opera, but also employs the Kuilei note (music of the string puppet theatre) found in Quanzhou marionette performance. The southern tradition is mainly popular in Zhangzhou. Its music and voice is a combination of Jingju (Opera) and to a lesser extent the Xiang Opera of Hunan. (See [Jinjiang Hand Puppet Troupe] [[Jinjiangshi Zhangzhong Muoutuan]]).

On Taiwan glove puppetry is popular, but its music has incorporated the styles of Wu Opera and Jingju (Opera). There have been changes in repertoire and costume, too. Periods in Taiwan include: the longdi budaixi era (also known as the nanguan budaixi) when puppet operas were of the “literary” type; the beiguan budaixi era when “martial” operas increased; the guce budaixi era, when stories were based on historical novels and famous crimes; the jianxia budaixi era, based on martial arts novels and for which a mixture of nanguan, beiguan and chaodiao music was used; the Kominka budaixi era, when the Japanese colonial rulers imposed Japanese culture with samurai stories, Japanese costumes, and hairstyles; the nationalist budaixi era when puppets wore Republic of China military gear; and the jinguang (or jingang) budaixi era, which took its name from the invincible warrior guardians of Buddhist tradition.

Today, traditional and modern Taiwanese glove puppetry, which has developed since the 1960s, coexist. In the south of the island in the region of Huwei, the style of popular storytellers prevails, and performances are often centred on episodes of the ancient mythical saga of Fengshen yanyi (Investiture of the Gods).

Musically, the most modern of budaixi in Taiwan strays from set Chinese sources and traditions, and uses instead all sorts of musical recordings (both Western and Eastern), as found in the budaixi television shows of Wu Jou Yuen (Wuzhouyuan; Garden of the Five Continents), the theatre founded by Master [Huang Hai-Dai] ([Huang Haidai]). Known as Pili Budaixi (Peal of Thunder Glove Puppetry), this new form is wildly popular on television (Pili TV) and through films such as the Legend of the Sacred Stone (2002). Some critique these presentations for prejudicing viewers against more traditional troupes.

Fujian style glove puppetry was found widely in the Malay Chinese community especially in Penang in the 1970s and 1980s when it was a part of temple festivals, but is rare today. Singapore had the same tradition. Indonesia had troupes that performed glove puppetry in the late 20th century. Fujian glove puppetry was taken to the United States by the talented Fujian puppet master Yang Fei who settled in Seattle, Washington in the 1980s and trained American student Dimitri Carter of [Northwest Puppetry Center].

Iron-rod Puppets (Tiezhi mu’ou)

The iron-rod puppet is also named “iron wire puppet”. It is popular in eastern Guangdong and western Fujian and generally believed to have evolved from the shadow theatre. Its operation is believed to be similar to that of the shadow puppet in that there is a horizontal rod to the centre of the puppet’s back to hold the weight (although in reality most of the central rods of shadow figures are around the neck area), and in Chaozhou and Shantou it is also called the paper shadow show. An iron-rod puppet measures 0.33 to 0.48 metre in stature, and is composed of a painted earthen head, a torso carved from wood, papier-mâché hands, carved wooden feet, and a rod (bamboo with wire wrapped around it) that serves as manipulation stick. Other sticks are attached to the arms of the figure. It uses the music and repertoire of the Chao Opera. During performance, the actor sits on the ground and operates behind the back of the puppet. Today in Chaozhou, some private troupes are still performing. Among them is the Jinshi Longge Puppetry Troupe, which since 1993 has performed frequently in Europe.

Characters and Repertoire

The character types of the various theatrical forms of the human actors’ operas, and the shadow and puppet theatres (also operatic in form traditionally) are sometimes related: major roles being the sheng (male), dan (female), jing (painted face), and chou (comic, with a white nose). The various characters with heavily painted faces each have a precise persona, recognizable by the dominant colour and their headdress and hair. A red face represents honour and loyalty; black, implacable justice; green face, bravery and forcefulness; yellow, cruelty and ferocity; white face, disloyalty and treachery. All the figures have their own specific make-up pattern and colours through which their character traits can be featured. The repertoire of shadow puppetry and actors’ theatre draws from a common tradition. The ancient, legendary rulers are seen as culture bringers, and clan ancestors are invested with powers and exemplary virtues. The kings and heroes whose acts are recorded in the dynastic annals are elevated models distinguishing between vice and virtue.

The repertoire is large; more than one thousand traditional puppet plays existed in just Fujian province. This popular literature was born of oral traditions, which with accompanying music, gesture, and mime, revisited the lives of archetypes who are often real figures on which the teller embroiders with his own inspiration. Through this process, certain roles were affirmed and became a mandatory path to myth, such as the [Monkey King] ([Meihouwang Sun Wukong]), the Dragon King, or the White Snake. Happy or inauspicious events, sad tales with happy outcomes, the reunion of those separated, success at government examinations, freedom, fidelity, loyalty – all these diverse themes are played and replayed as the viewer identifies and experiments with the life represented. Narratives reinforce the idea of exorcism and the eternal struggle toward good as it gains power over evil.  

Theatre Framed in Religious Rituals

The content and form of puppetry have long been associated with religion and performances and are felt to have an auspicious impact. Before each performance, puppeteers will gather together to pray to the god of drama. An auspicious or celebratory prelude will be presented before the formal performance, as a vow to the divine, to promote joy and blessings, and win long life and fulfillment of wishes.

The auspicious repertoire (jinqing xiwen) is felt that the show can prevent calamity and deter evil. Common plays of this type are: Tianguan cifu (Blessing of the Gods); Fulushou (Gathering of the Gods of Fortune, Prosperity, and Longevity); and Tiannü sanhua (Fairies Scattering Flowers). Religious plays for formal performance include: Guanyin hua (Guanyin Cultivation) publicizing Buddhism; Dianhua Xiangzi (The Enlightenment of Xiangzi) proselytizing Daoism; Baishou (To Celebrate Birthday) advising good and cultivation; and Mulian jiumu (Mulian Rescues His Mother), a play that brings salvation and relief. We find a tableau of characters that have a liturgical function. Take for example the following playlets that are performed before the main shows: Jiaguan (Advancing a Grade) where the masked personage represents a deity who will assist in one’s official career; Tianguan cifu (The Celestial Official Grants Happiness), and Jianguan jinjue (Promotion and Advancement) in which the puppet playing the role of a deity serves a similar function of representing a god who will realize one’s wishes. The plays represent situations that are eminently positive with endings that show the happy reunion of two lovers separated by destiny such as in Tuanyuan (The Reunion), or top placement in the imperial examination as in Jinbang (Tableau of Honour). Some plays in the repertoire are clearly exorcistic. Shown at moments in the main piece, these tableaux serve as a purification of the scene and remind us that theatre has its origin in calendrical feast days, such as in the transition of New Year. In Tiao Lingguan (The Dance of the Divine Officer Lingguan) or Tiao Zhong Kui (Dance of Zhong Kui) the central characters are exorcistic figures and their appearances are felt to create a happy and bustling atmosphere that is auspicious for the community.

Tibetan culture also has a tradition of iconography that uses masks (see [Qiangmu]), large figures and [butter puppets]. Its traditions, derived from Tibetan Buddhist culture, span the [Himalaya] in a shared culture with Bhutan, parts of Nepal, Kashmir, and India including Sikkim, etc.

Perspective and Prospect

In the 1950s, the government of China cultivated traditional puppetry and shadow puppetry in accordance with the ideas on the arts articulated by Chairman Mao at Yen’an. As an art of the people, puppetry was considered an appropriate form of “People’s Art” that could help uplift and modernize the nation. In 1955, the first session of the National Shadow Puppetry Performance Assembly was held in Beijing. Thirty-one excellent shadow puppetry troupes participated, including more than 180 members from thirteen provinces and cities. The event caused a sensation throughout the whole country. Three meetings of shadow performers were held thereafter, which encouraged shadow puppeteers to make new developments and transform from the traditional operatic style to modern play type productions, and develop children’s plays and musicals as “edutainment”, a trend that has accelerated since the 1980s. Figures like Monkey King from Xiyou ji (Journey to the West) appear on the scene in acts of comic and acrobatic performance for the public in the same way that internationally known figures like Pinocchio or the Little Mermaid do. In the cities, it is no longer a question of gods and ancestors implicated in transcendent power or exorcistic figures like Zhong Kui, slayer of demons.

New troupes were formed in the 1950s and early 1960s, among them [Yangzhou Puppet Troupe] ([Yangzhou Muou Jutuan], founded in 1957 as the Puppet Troupe of Taixing County), listed in the National Intangible Heritage safeguarding register, and the glove puppet company, [Zhangzhou Puppet Troupe] ([Zhangzhoushi Muou Jutuan]), founded in the 1950s.

In 1980, the China Puppetry and Shadow Arts Association (hereinafter the Association) was founded in Beijing, by the Beijing [China Puppet Art Troupe] ([Zhongguo Muou Yishutuan], founded in 1955), [Shanghai Puppet Troupe] ([Shanghai Muoutuan], founded in 1960), [Guangdong Puppetry Art Troupe] ([Guangdongsheng Muou Jutuan], 1956), [Quanzhou Marionette Troupe] ([Quanzhoushi Muou Jutuan], 1952), [Chengdu Puppet and Shadow Show Troupe] ([Chengdu Muou Piying Jutuan], 1951), and [Tangshan Shadow Puppet Troupe] ([Tangshan Piyingtuan], 1959). Later in 2002, these groups and others decided to establish UNIMA China.

The Association and UNIMA China by 2012 had thrice held the Golden Lion Awards National Shadow Puppetry Competition, and three sessions of the Golden Lion Awards National Shadow Puppetry Skill Competition for Youths and Adolescents. In order to train a new generation of quality puppeteers, the Association cooperated with Shanghai Theatre Academy China to establish the Chinese Shadow Puppet Talent Training Base in 2008 to provide a higher education site for shadow training. After 1980, puppetry troupes from various regions visited abroad and exchanged performances continually, helping to promote the innovation and development of puppetry in China.

Two Puppetry Exhibitions of the Asian-Pacific Region were held in Taiwan. An International Shadow Puppetry Festival was held in Tangshan. A Dialogue Between East-West Shadow Puppetry’s Essence was staged at Peking University, and two Shanghai International Puppet Festivals were held. Researchers, artists, and amateurs such as France’s Jacques Pimpaneau with his [Musée Kwok On] ([Kwok On Museum and Collection], initially installed in Paris; since 1999, it has relocated to Lisbon, Portugal as the [Oriente Fundçãco Museum do Oriente]) and Jean Luc Penso with his troupe [Théâtre du Petit Miroir] (Little Mirror Theatre, based in Issy-les-Moulineaux, France) help contribute to the presentation of the 1,000-year-old legacy in France, as did the US-based Gold Mountain Institute for Traditional Shadow Theater run by Jo Humphrey in the 1980s-1990s, and from the late 1990s Chinese Theatre Works of Kuang-Yu Fong and Stephen Kaplin in New York. Important collections of Chinese puppets are found at the Field Museum in Chicago and [American Museum of Natural History] in New York, both acquired by the major German scholar Berthold Laufer in the early years of the 20th century. Other collections are found in Germany, Sweden, and museums around the world.

The Chinese Minister of Culture has been undertaking since 2002 a ten-year project to compile information about Chinese popular arts.

In 2012, Chengdu was the site of the 21st UNIMA Congress and World Puppetry Festival, offering over a hundred performances and hosting puppeteers, researchers, and cultural workers from across the globe. These performances and exchanges have contributed to the development of puppetry and have promoted harmonious relationships nationally and internationally.


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