A Brief Introduction of Chinese Puppetry
As one of China's performing art contributions to world heritage treasures,
Chinese puppetry has a long history. It is noted for its many types of
puppets and superb manipulative skill.
No truly definitive conclusions have yet been reached on the origin and
evolution of Chinese puppetry. However, pottery figurines used in place
of slaves as burial objects have been discovered at the Yin Ruins dating
from the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC) in Anyang of Henan Province.
Wooden figurines used as burial objects appeared during the Spring and
Autumn (770-446BC) and Warring States (475-221BC) periods.
In a Western Han (206BC-24AD) tomb at Mawangdui in Changsha Hunan Province,
a number of wooden figurines of singers, dancers, and musicians have been
unearthed. These were a great improvement on those from previous dynasties
in terms of craftsmanship, variety, and modeling. These figurines perhaps
represent the earliest Chinese puppets.
Over time, figurines as burial objects evolved into puppets for entertainment
on festive occasions.
In 1979, a large wooden figure was discovered at Daishu Village in Laixi
County Shandong Province. The figure, 193 centimeters long and fashioned
from 13 pieces of wood, has movable joints enabling it to assume a sitting,
standing, or kneeling position. Its discovery shows that there was indeed
a transitional period between figurines made to pacify the dead and their
evolvement into puppets used for amusing people.
The discovery also shows that figurines with movable joints like human
beings began to appear, laying a substantial foundation for the birth
of Chinese puppetry. Therefore, most experts believe Chinese puppetry
originated from burial objects that underwent three stages of development
-- from slaves to musicians to animated singers and dancers.
As to when puppets were first used in theatrical performances, experts
agree that the art "arose in Han and became popular in the Tang Dynasty
(618-907)." According to the History of the Later Han Dynasty, puppets
already existed during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). During the Three
Kingdoms Period (220-280), a person named Ma Jun used flowing water to
manipulate wooden figures to do variety acts mimicking human performance.
The Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577) witnessed great progress in the manufacture
of jointed wooden figures activated by flowing water. In addition, there
appeared during that period a puppet show telling the story of Baldheaded
Guo. This provides evidence for dating the formation of Chinese puppetry.
Records show that puppet shows recounting the story of Baldheaded Guo
were performed during the following centuries.
Even today, the puppet show of Heyang in Shaanxi Province has a special
character named Laibaozi (a man with a bald head), whose imagery and performance
reveal traces of Baldheaded Guo depicted during the Qi and the later dynasties.
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.
The content and form of presentations of Chinese puppetry improved greatly
along with the development of other performing arts after the Northern
Qi period. During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), jointed wooden figures activated
by water were used to depict fairy tales, legends, and stories of the
Three Kingdoms. Although they were not puppets manipulated by men, they
had a direct influence on the manufacture of puppets and puppet shows.
It is a pity that records of them are so sparse.
Puppets activated by water were so ingeniously constructed during the
Tang period that they were capable of mimicking human actions such as
drinking, singing, and playing the reed pipe. Judging from Tang poems
and murals in the No.31 grotto at the Mogao Grottos, string, rod, and
glove puppets were already in existence during the Tang Dynasty.
Puppetry was more sophisticated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) than in
the Tang and there is rich recorded information about it. Generally, Song
puppetry had four characteristics. First, it widened its scope of subject
matter by adapting theatrical plays and stories passed down by storytellers.
Second, it had many types of puppets including string, road, water-activated,
gunpowder-activated, and human puppets. Third, the manipulative skill
was superb and the performance was lifelike. And fourth, a number of master
manipulators of string and rod puppets such as Zhang Jinxian and Ren Xiaosan
Dating back to the Three Kingdoms period, water-activated puppets were
developed on the basis of the jointed wooden figures activated by flowing
water. The gunpowder-activated puppet was closely related to today's fireworks,
and children moving like puppets performed the human puppets. In rural
areas in Guangdong Province, glove and wire puppets were popular.
Puppetry enjoyed great prosperity during the Song period. Puppet troupes
could be found everywhere in the empire. They performed in theaters in
urban areas and sometimes were summoned to play in the royal palace. In
the Song Dynasty, men of letters also exhibited great interest in puppet
The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was the golden age of ziju (poetic drama
set to music). It also saw progress made in puppetry. The only existing
text about puppetry during the Yuan Dynasty, it is known that manipulative
techniques during Yuan times were sophisticated, capable of making puppets
do actions such as talking and singing; the techniques also vividly portrayed
the characters' feelings of joy, anger, sorrow, and delight. In addition,
the repertoire of Yuan Dynasty puppetry was as realistic as its poetic
Chinese puppetry further developed during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing
(1644-1911) dynasties, with a number of schools spreading across the country.
Puppetry gained great popularity during the reign of the Ming Emperor
Wanli (1573-1620). In Fujian Province, where puppetry was especially prosperous,
string puppets were constructed with fine workmanship and manipulation
was very complex because each figure had up to 30 strings. Speech was
vivid and the musical accompaniment was rich.
Fujian glove puppets could be divided into the northern and southern branches.
Quanzhou glove puppet shows belonged to the southern branch, whose music
was similar to that used for string puppet shows. Zhangzhou glove puppet
shows belonged to the northern branch, of which the most famous was the
glove puppetry from Longxi in southern Fujian. This branch used the xipi
and erhuang tunes in music and had all types of roles.
The southern branch was noted for its plays based on myths, while the
northern branch stressed plays with battle scenes. In time, the northern
branch also broadened its scope of performance by including plays adapted
from fairy tales. Water-activated puppet shows during the Ming period
gradually evolved interesting plots.
Rod puppets were popular in Guangdong, Fujian, and Guizhou provinces during
the Ming Dynasty. Rod puppet shows with many types of roles were widely
distributed in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). They could be
found in Hangzhou City (of Zhejiang Province), in the provinces of Guangdong,
Sichuan, and Shanxi, and in Beijing Municipality among many other places.
Rod puppets in Sichuan came in three sizes - large, medium, and small.
Rod puppets in Shanxi were divided into central and southern Shanxi type.
Rod puppetry in Beijing was actually another form of Peking Opera. The
art was introduced to the royal palace and was therefore popularly referred
to as dataigongxi (grand palace theater). There were four well-known troupes
in Beijing including the Jinli and Siyi troupes. They often invited outstanding
Peking Opera artists such as Jin Xiushan and Liu Yongchun to provide background
narration and songs for the shows.
String puppet shows were already highly developed in Shanxi's Heyang
County during the Ming Dynasty. During the reigns of the Qing emperors
Qianlong and Jiaqing (1736-1820), they were very popular in more than
30 counties in the border areas between Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Henan provinces,
and in Heyang alone there were over 30 string puppet troupes. String puppets
also enjoyed popularity in Hangzhou and Quanzhou and in Fujian's Shanghang
County in particular during the reign of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908).
During the last years of the Qing Dynasty, string puppet troupes from
Jiangsu Province toured Southeast Asia and were well received.
Wire puppets began to take shape near the end of the Qing Dynasty and
became very popular in eastern Guangdong and western Fujian. Gunpowder-activated
puppet shows were performed in Pucheng County of Shanxi Province during
the Fire God Festival. Their representative plays in Qing times were The
Goddess of Heaven Scatters Flowers, Wu Song Overpowers the Tiger, and
Monkey King Subdues the White Bone Demon Three Times.
After the 1911 Revolution, cultural circles in Shanghai took the lead
in producing modern plays. During the 1930s, in an attempt to reform traditional
puppet shows by introducing modern stage design, lighting, and sound effect,
Yu Zheguang and others created and staged new puppet shows such as Wen
Tianxiang, The Swan, and The Eternal Grief. As a result, the scope of
subject matter for puppet shows and the space for their performances were
During the 1940s, puppet troupes of a new type were set up in Beijing,
Tianjin, Shanghai, and other large cities and their influence continued
to grow, laying a good foundation for the development of puppetry in the
People's Republic of China. However, traditional puppet shows were still
performed in other parts of China, particularly in the vast countryside.
In the 1950s, private puppet troupes were reorganized and became government
funded. Nationwide and local puppet show festivals were organized from
time to time, which greatly raised the social status of puppetry and its
In April 1955, the First National Puppet Show and Shadow Play Festival
was held in Beijing. Participants included troupes from 12 provinces and
municipalities. Although the items performed were mostly traditional,
they had been revised with the addition of new content. In addition, new
works reflecting real life were created.
The festival also featured a large exhibition of valuable wooden puppets
of which puppets carved by Jiang Jiazou, a master from Quanzhou of Fujian
Province, regarded as national treasures. During this period, Chinese
puppet troupes were sent to perform abroad and a puppet film industry
began to take shape
In January 1960, the Second National Puppet Show and Shadow Play Festival
was held in Beijing. New creations such as Monkey King Makes Havoc in
Heaven, The Cowboy and the Village Girl, The Dauntless Boy, and The Fisherman's
Song at Sea were produced at the festival. They were varied in theme and
form. By then, puppet performances in China had come from the street to
modern theaters and puppetry had become a fully respectable stage art.
In December 1975, the Third National Puppet Show and Shadow Play Festival
was held in Beijing. It featured puppet shows with modern themes and also
showed that bold attempts had been made to improve the modeling of characters,
sound effects, and stage art.
During the late 1970s, a number of new creations appeared. In 1978, the
Quanzhou Puppet Troupe produced The Fiery Mountains, a full-length play
based on an episode from the mythological novel Journey to the West, which
marked the beginning of a new era.
With the establishment of the Association of Chinese Puppet Shows and
Shadow Plays in the early 1980s, the Ministry of Culture decided that
an annual performance week of puppet shows and shadow plays be held throughout
At the Fourth National Puppet Show and Shadow Play Festival held in Beijing
in November 1981, a large number of new puppet shows were presented, such
as The Wide Swan, The Tongtian River, Nezha Stirs Up the Sop, A Race Between
the Tortoise and the Hare, and The Proud Rooster. These new shows were
created to suit the tastes of both adults and children. They also reflected
the policy of making puppetry move with the times and serve the needs
of the masses.
In the 1990s, Chinese puppetry took on a new look and prepared itself
to meet the challenge of market competition. The National Puppet Show
and Shadow Play Festival held in 1992 attracted more participants than
ever before and featured many outstanding puppet shows.
The Wenhua Award set up by the Ministry of Culture is the top government
prize for best puppet shows. So far, the award has been conferred on the
China Puppet Troupe for its Magic Suona Horn, the Hunan Puppet Troupe
for its Red Cloud, the Shanghai Puppet Troupe for its Nezha Comes Across
Visitors From Outer Space and The Toad and the Goose, the Chengdu Puppet
Troupe for its Nezha, and the Tianjin Children's Puppet Troupe for its