People around the world have used puppets for entertainment. People have used them to stage dramas and comedies and added musical entertainment and sound effects. Puppet plays of various types were popular in China. It is said that Mongol troops entertained themselves with puppet shadow plays as they conquered China and many countries to the west. There were several forms of puppet theaters in China. It isn’t known which developed first. The Chinese puppet theaters come in four forms: 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. Glove puppets are still a common toy in the West, but marionettes aren’t popular toys in the West nowadays. Rod-type puppets and shadow puppetry weren’t as popular in the West. Besides China, shadow puppetry was popular in ancient times in Indonesia and India.
Marionettes were usually carved from pieces of wood, and the assembled parts are hung on strings. Chinese Marionette Plays are mostly performed in the open air without a curtain to conceal the puppeteers, and spectators can see the performances from three sides of the stage. That the puppeteers are not hidden in Chinese Marionette Plays is different than in the West where the audiences usually expect them to be hidden. There were religious aspects to Chinese Marionette Plays, and there might still be to some extent.
Chinese rod puppets are puppets that are manipulated by three rods. One is attached to the puppet’s head. The other two are attached to the arms. The legs are left without rods. The puppets may be small or even 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 let their hands and rods show. 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. There are no rods for the puppets legs. Rod puppetry is still a little popular in China.
At a time when there was no flat-screen TV, people entertained themselves in the evening with shadow puppet theater in many places in the world. 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 ancient black and white cartoons.
Shadow puppet shows were popular in Mongol camps. They took the entertainment with them as the 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 theater 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 adopting technology to help stage interesting performances in China.