The majority of puppeteers in old China were either not very literate or entirely illiterate people, but popular ingenuity and an unbroken centuries-old tradition evolved a puppet “anatomy” and a technique of construction, which one man alone could never have done no matter how literate or technically skilled he might have been.
The term “centuries-old” is used for the reason that the tradition is really thousands of years old. In a work entitled The Origins of the Chinese Puppet Theatre, the author –Sun Kai-ti- when speaking of the first historical documents which contain references to the existence of the puppet theatre in China, begins his enumeration of these with The Book of Music.
This work was written by Chen Yuan, who lived in the epoch of the Song Dynasty – eight hundred years ago.
But this period evidently has to be increased almost four times over, because when speaking of the puppet theatre Chen Yuan refers to a popular legend concerning a puppet master named Yang Shih who made the first puppets and performed with them at the court of the Chu emperor, Mu-Wang, who reigned in the tenth century B.C., i.e. three thousand years ago.
The legend tells us that on one occasion the Emperor felt that the puppets were winking irreverently at his wives and courtiers. Mu-Wang ordered the puppet master to be put to death, but before the executioner could approach Yang Shih, he quickly slashed his puppets with a knife to prove that they were not really alive.
Mu-Wang got over it and allowed Yang Shih to continue performing, but, just to make sure that there would be no further unpleasantness of any kind in the future, he forbade his wives to watch any such performances.
Sun Kai-ti writes that the custom of not allowing women to witness puppet performances was preserved in feudal China until very recent years.
There is another legend of how the first puppet was invented. This was recorded in the Tang epoch, by Tuan An-chieh, in his book Notes on Folk Songs.
In this legend, we are told how the leader of a nomadic tribe, Khan Modo, laid siege to the city of Pinchen, the residence of the founder of the Han dynasty, Emperor Kao-Tzu. The town was saved by one of the Emperor’s courtiers.
Knowing that the wife of the Khan was very temperamental, he commanded that a puppet should be made in the form of a beautiful maiden, and, with the assistance of some contraption or other, he made it dance on the city wall.
The Khan’s wife, noticing the dancer’s beauty, and thinking that it was alive, became very perturbed because she thought that, if the town was taken, the Khan would take this beauty as his concubine. In such an event she would lose the Khan’s love and goodwill.
The danger seemed to her so great and so real that the terrified wife persuaded her husband to abandon the siege of the town.
Neither of these legends of course reveals the origins of the puppet theatre of China, but their existence is evidence of the fact, that, already in very early times, the puppet theatre was part and parcel of the everyday social life of the people and clearly existed as a popular form of entertainment.
The difficulty of investigating the origin of the Chinese puppet theatre is increased, because in the Chinese language, performances with masks and puppet performances are both referred to by one and the same name Kuei lei hsi, and it is often impossible to determine whether any old document refers to people masks or to puppets.
A classification of puppet theatres does, however, exist in one of these old books and the author enumerates five fundamental forms: the ‘portable booth”, i.e. glove puppets, “string puppets”, “powder puppets”, “floating puppets” and “live puppets”.
The “portable booth” is a “portable theatre” because it is carried around from place to place. Unlike many of the fairground glove puppets of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with their large wooden heads and clumsy bodies, the Chinese “bag” puppets are remarkably proportionate, mobile, and expressive; some of them have movable fingers, mouths, and eyes.
As far as Chinese puppets are concerned, the control of movements has been worked out and elaborated by tradition to a degree that is hard to imagine. It is possible to see puppets operated by twenty, thirty, and even forty strings, moving their mouths, their eyes, and their eyebrows.
You can see astonishingly expressive mimicry on puppet faces resulting from the movements of brow and chin, and living hands capable of grasping any object.
"Powder puppets" no longer exist, nor is there any extant description of their construction. These puppets were probably set in motion by some mechanical device, where the dynamic force was provided in the form of a powder explosion, i.e. something like the contemporary combustion engine.
As for “floating puppets”, the evidence is somewhat greater, but still insufficient to imagine what a performance was like. These were constructed in human form, but only from the waist upwards, and rested on cross-shaped or circular wooden bases, which enabled them to float on perk lakes.
Sun Kai-ti writes that “live” puppet performances were characteristic of the Sung epoch only. These were, in fact, children in costume sitting on the shoulders of grown-ups and imitating the movements of puppets.
He also considers that the shadow theatre is of later origin, and relates it to the Tang epoch, i.e. to the seventh to ninth centuries of slightly later – the period of the Fifth Dynasty and that it was finally established in the eleventh century.
The puppet theatre in Beijing is not the only State Puppet Theatre in China.
The renaissance of the art of the puppet theatre of China has only begun and it is difficult to see how it will develop. But one thing, at any rate, is important. In very early times the puppet theatre in China was developed to a greater extent than it was in any other country; nowhere were its forms and methods so varied.
But towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the great art of the puppet theatre began to fall into degeneracy and decay. It might well have disappeared entirely if the revolution had not revealed and unleashed the whole creative power of this great nation.
Questions of culture became fundamental questions of the day. The theatre, including the puppet theatre, became part of a singular and powerful development of art serving the people, and actors, including puppeteers, became respected members of society.