At the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, China presented a show of exquisite performing arts, among which was puppetry.
This kind of puppet performance originated in Quanzhou in the southeastern province of Fujian. In the Song dynasty, 800 years ago, Quanzhou was an immensely prosperous trading port in which many traditional customs and arts thrived and were passed down through generations. At the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, many people around the world saw this amazing art for the first time.
Each puppet was manipulated through dozens of strings attached to its limbs by the puppeteer’s ten fingers. Wearing exaggerated expressions, the puppet makes all kinds of moves as the puppeteer pulls the strings. The puppet can perform intricate movements including holding a brush, grinding an ink stick, and writing Chinese characters on paper.
This stringed puppet can have sixteen to thirty strings and is very difficult to manipulate. In order to operate it with ease, the performer has to spend long hours in professional training. An accomplished performer can read lines, sing, and control the puppet’s different postures and movements at the same time, synchronizing himself with the puppet as a whole.
Besides sophisticated acting skills, the carving of the puppet is also a specialized and complicated art. A Quanzhou stringed puppet alone comes in over 300 varieties in order to play a number of different characters.
Chinese puppetry has an early origin. In the 1980’s in Liaoning province in northeast China, excavation at a Neolithic site dating back 6,000 years revealed pottery that resembled human and animal heads. These pottery heads had holes at the bottom through which wooden sticks could be inserted in order to manipulate the puppets (to make them dance, for example). Scholars believe they likely represent the earliest evidence of puppetry in China. Archaeological findings show that in the Shang dynasty (ca. 3,000 years ago), large numbers of pottery figurines were used as funeral sacrificial objects. By the third century, sophisticated puppet shows involving dancing and acrobatics had already come into being; but it was during the tenth to thirteen centuries that puppetry enjoyed an unprecedented popularity.
During the long course of China’s history, puppetry appeared in many of the country’s provinces. Puppet shows developed in a variety of different forms as they adopted and were influenced by local customs. For example, those in Hebei are known for the outstanding dexterity of the puppets; in Shanxi the puppets are known for their use of weapons while those of Shaanxi display a comic bent. In the southwest, Sichuan puppets are highly regarded for their emotional expressions. The puppets of Jiangsu, on the southeast coast, blend form with spirit. In Fujian the characters are capable of all kinds of tricks. Finally, in Hainan the plays represent a peaceful coexistence between gods and humankind.
There are many types of puppets. The ones used at the Olympic Games were marionettes—a classic example of Chinese puppetry. Other types of puppets include rod puppets with either wood or iron rods. There is one type of puppet which is ideal for home entertainment or small gatherings for it requires only one person to perform all the tricks. The performer puts one hand into the puppet and uses the index finger to control the puppet’s head. Two characters can be manipulated simultaneously, one on each hand. The performer can act, read lines, and sing at the same time. All the puppet props can be put into a cloth sack and carried from village to village and from door to door. This type of puppet show, called “glove puppetry” (literally “cloth sack opera”), is popular in southern Fujian and Taiwan.
A Chinese puppet performance can take the form of either an entire opera or a number of single acts. Due to its simplicity and ease of delivery, the puppet show became a popular entertainment throughout China’s vast territory. However, in today’s fast-paced world of industrialization and urbanization, most young people no longer appreciate puppet shows. In many areas, the once dazzling puppet shows have disappeared from the stage and become history, leaving people with a sense of nostalgia and only memories.