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Chinese Puppet Plays

Puppet performing has a long history in China and has evolved into various types. As to its origin, an old tale claims that Mongol troops entertained themselves with puppet shadow plays as they conquered China and other countries to the west. There were several forms of puppet theatres in China; marionettes on strings or wires, rod puppets, shadow plays, and hand manipulated glove-type puppets.

Marionettes on strings or wire like Pinocchio and glove-type puppets like the Muppets were well-known in the West. Even now, glove puppets are still a common toy in the West, but the same cannot be said about marionettes. Rod-type puppets and shadow puppetry have never taken off to the same extent in the Western world. Along with China, people in Indonesia and India also favoured shadow puppetry in ancient times.

Usually, marionettes are carved from pieces of wood and the assembled parts are hung on strings. Chinese Marionette Plays mostly take place outside without a curtain to conceal the puppeteers, and spectators can see the performances from three sides of the stage. The fact that the puppeteers are not hidden in Chinese Marionette Plays is a complete difference to the Western equivalent where the audiences usually expect them to be hidden. Chinese Marionette Plays used to incorporate religious aspects into their performances and some still do to this day, but not as frequently.

Chinese rod puppets are manipulated by three rods. One is attached to the puppet’s head. The other two are attached to the arms and the legs are left without rods. The puppets may be small or perhaps life-size. Performers used to wear special traditional theatric robes with big sleeves so that the rods were somewhat hidden, but modern performers tend to show their hands and their rods. The head is usually hollow and is carved from wood, and the performers can move the eyes and mouth. The hand rods may be attached to the performer’s wrists or elbows. Despite its traditional value, rod puppetry is still not that popular in China.

In the ages before a flat screen television, people entertained themselves in the evening by watching shadow puppet plays. A simple lamp and a thin screen was all that was needed for a stage. Things like furniture, pagodas, walls and plants were shown on the screen by placing figurines or figures made of cardboard or leather in front of the lamp. The lamp illuminated the screen from behind, and people could move little figurines around for theatrical performances. Add music and sound effects, and the performance could be entertaining if it was well executed. These were also the ancient forms of black and white cartoons.

Shadow puppet shows were popular in Mongol camps. They took the entertainment with them as they conquered the countries to the west. Puppet shadow plays were popular in the Ottoman Empire that arose in the southwestern part of the Mongol territory. It is said that French missionaries who returned to France from China in the 1700s staged shadow shows so that the entertainment and art form was popular in France before the advent of motion pictures.

In contrast to shadow plays that were staged even in rough Mongol encampments or poor primitive villages, the stages for glove-puppet theatre were often finely crafted. There were miniature palace courtyards with richly decorated buildings that had carved rafters and golden roofs for example. Nowadays, glove puppet plays are popular in Taiwan.

Staging an entertaining puppet play takes a lot of practice. It is hard for puppeteers to compete with modern entertainment, but some of them are using modern materials and technology to help stage interesting performances in China.