Traditional puppetry is characterized by specific styles, particular stories, types of puppets and techniques of performance that have been passed down from generation to generation. Often such performances are closely tied to modes of thought or behaviour of a group, transmitted via customs which are drawn upon and thus affirmed or promoted. These groups may be united by social or economic class, language, ethnicity, history, geography, religion or other bonds that define their sense of belonging to a unique culture.

Cultural Diffusion

Understanding a performance or a celebration relevant to an unfamiliar culture is a complex task. Each tradition has its own way of representing life and interpreting the human condition. The ability to explain a traditional puppet show depends on our ability to appreciate the conventions that the artists involved have followed, modified or abandoned. Even local traditions are susceptible to diffusion. For instance, the prevalence of Hindu characters and themes in the traditional puppetry of a Muslim country such as Indonesia implies a diffusion and relocation of models from their origins in India. For different reasons, some traditional puppet characters, such as Pulcinella in the West and Arjuna in the East, became widely diffused across many cultures. In contrast, “the snake of Wagadu” and the manatee characters in the Sogo bó masquerades of the Ségou region of Mali, remain relatively localized.

Determining the origins and subsequent paths of diffusion is complicated. Sometimes evidence suggests that a specific character or form of puppetry arose only once; scholars can then trace it back to its roots. But in other instances, a new form is invented simultaneously but independently in a number of places. Thus the techniques of shadow puppetry, usually associated with Central Asia, could well have been developed independently by different cultures in widely separated locations. With population growth and the development of means of communication, the rhythm and frequency of this cultural diffusion have been considerably intensified and diversified.

Tradition and Authenticity

Even the concept of tradition is far from carrying a universal meaning. The English historian Eric Hobsbawn asserted that tradition coincides with the invention of a tradition. So it is important not to associate tradition and authenticity too strictly. During the last twenty years of the 20th century there were increasing efforts made to understand traditional puppetry performances from an indigenous viewpoint, that of the performers and also of their local audiences. At the same time, many traditional puppeteers from around the world were attempting to present their work to a public from other cultures. Scholars routinely struggle with conflicting perspectives between expertise, stylistic and regional studies and “a more contemporary focus on the role of objects and on the ideational frameworks within which these objects are produced and used.” (Kris L. Hardin and Mary Jo Arnoldi, African Material Culture, 1996.) Throughout the world, scholarship and commercialized definitions of exactly what constitutes “authenticity” have influenced one another in complex ways during most of the 20th century. In their introduction to the above work, Hardin and Arnoldi identify this interplay with specific regard to African objects, but their comments have much broader implications. Questions of regionalism and authenticity remain fundamental, they write, because collectors need to know whether they have acquired an authentic example of a particular type of work and where the object came from in ethnic terms. Such questions tend to reproduce the now heavily criticized notion that there is a singular relationship between culture and style, and the accepted definitions of particular styles and ethnic boundaries have been shown to be inaccurate. Also, the emphasis on authenticity, notably in studies on the arts, and the romantic perception of the unvarying “traditions” of pre-colonial African cultures have resulted in research agendas that privilege a limited set of stable cultural forms over examinations of heterogeneity, innovation, interregional flows, and the mechanics of change.

Tradition and Folklore

The “proper” determination of what qualifies as “traditional” is often the subject of debate as much among specialists as among the public. The division, now common among artists and audiences, that is to be found for example in Scott Cutler Shershow’s book, Puppets &“Popular” Culture (Cornell University Press, 1995), between two major types of performance, the one belonging to a “high” or elitist culture, the other to a “popular” or folk culture, can lead to confusion. Thus some “popular” genres like the kkoktu-gaksi (also kkoktu kaksi and ggokdu gaksi) of Korea or the karagöz of Turkey are forms of traditional puppetry while the highly refined Bunraku of Osaka, Japan, is no less traditional, even if its audiences are typically drawn from the middle classes, and its artists are among the most honoured in Japan. In sum, although the terms “traditional puppet theatre” and “popular puppet theatre” are closely related, they are not interchangeable. At best, such terms should be used flexibly and with the clear sense that, for a wide variety of reasons, specific performance types do not always conform to scholarly taxonomies. For instance, leading experts have sometimes sponsored and elevated talented “folk” puppeteers and their works to higher status through monetary reward, an official position or other favours. Similarly icons of “low” or “folk” culture, such as Punch or Petrushka, have frequently been utilized by prestigious artists such as the composer Igor Stravinsky or the puppeteer, Henk Boerwinkel. Sometimes very similar productions within the same tradition are categorized differently for reasons that include perceived distinctions in quality, their declared objective (notably their sacred or secular function), the prestige of the artists or the status of their audience. For such reasons, the previously mentioned book, Puppets & “Popular” Culture, carefully places the word, “popular” in quotation marks.

It is also true that some forms of traditional puppetry are more formalized than others. It seems likely that performances such as those of the Hopi and Zuni, Native Americans of the American Southwest, obey the most rigidly prescribed rules, although this is difficult to verify because such performances are typically secret and closed to outsiders (see Native American Puppetry). Inevitably, there are distinct, subtle and highly valued variations even within the bounds of complex and clearly defined traditions. For instance, the puppeteers or dalang of the Javanese wayang kulit are certainly evaluated on the basis of their expertise in manipulation and characterization, their mastery of the traditional stories from the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as traditional Muslim and native Indonesian sources. At the same time, Javanese audiences deeply appreciate the ways in which individual dalang infuse their performances with uniquely creative touches in order to bring greater dramatic force to particular characters, their comments on topical events, or their own comic skills.

The notion of the “traditional” in art is equally questionable when market forces are involved, such as the evaluation of objects for museums or private collections. Here there is a tendency to equate the older artefact or performance style with one that is somehow more “authentically” traditional. Such items or events may command a higher monetary value because of their age, rarity or importance as relics of a specific historical moment. But this equivalence is not relevant in a context where all the traditional puppet forms are the result of a historic process and not simply the products or results of particular periods or moments in time. As societies adapt themselves to changing circumstances, the traditional arts through which those societies express themselves may also change.

Since the early 1970s, scholars have documented and advanced discussions of many forms of traditional puppetry, often finding the means to travel widely and so discovering little known regional traditions. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s a few troupes of Vietnamese water puppet puppeteers brought an awareness of their largely unknown art to an international public hardly aware of its existence. In this an organization of American veterans of the Vietnam War played an essential role in the recognition of these artists and the spread of the art form, which raises interesting questions about the understanding of tradition. Does a “traditional” performance such as this become infused with a different meaning and value as it is discovered and perhaps redefined by new audiences – in this case these United States veterans – in other locations and other periods of time? Is one experience more valid than another simply because it is older? How are the roles of creativity balanced against traditional ways of doing things? Whose ways of doing things prevail? Whose interpretations are more valuable, and why?

A number of factors are at work here which force the transformation of an art form, or accelerate the obsolescence of many traditional puppetry styles. These include the introduction of mass media, the commercialization of the arts, revolutionary changes in communication and leisure technologies, political and social changes and so on. The commercialization of local traditional forms has necessitated change in order to adapt them to a wider public, and “traditional” productions are now shown to “modern” audiences. In consequence, culturally specific traditional performances are reclassified, redefined, or reconstructed in different – though not necessarily less valid – political, cultural, economic, societal or psychological terms. There is little doubt that such forces have always influenced traditional puppetry. Even so, the enormously heightened pace of events that have affected traditional puppetry since the beginning of the 20th century has often served to dismay connoisseurs, confound researchers, and disturb general audiences.

Many artists, scholars and new audiences have recognized the validity and significance of preserving, reviving or adapting traditions. Traditional puppeteers still have an important role to play in the preservation of cultures and the resistance of the human spirit to the forces of homogenization, electronics, corporations, and the all-too-often culturally impoverishing forces of the 21st century.


  • Guiette, Robert. Marionnettes de tradition populaire [Puppets of Popular Tradition]. Bruxelles: Cercle d’art, 1950.