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Puppetry in Asian Cultures


Before the internet, television, or books, there was puppetry, and Asia has been a home of that humble art for thousands of years.


Origin and History


The origins of puppets are unavoidably obscure and probably predate the written word, but several generalizations about them appear to be fairly well accepted. First, they likely can be traced back to religious ceremonies. Many ancient cultures often used moving figurines to worship their gods, but through time, the religious beliefs and magical aspects underlying the puppets were forgotten or replaced with different purposes. Puppetry was a natural development of story telling and preaching. It is said that even the priests in China began to activate religious idols in order to bring more force to their doctrines and to attract more adherents. A great deal of puppetry in the ancient world had a deeply religious significance, and performances gave expression to a whole moral philosophy.


Second, it seems almost certain that puppetry originated in India and spread from there throughout the ancient world. Communication between India and the Asian regions began when Indian merchants were lured by the prospects of trade to venture into Indochina and Malaysia. Immigrants to the settlements that developed along the trade routes bought a culture and literature that were strongly influenced by religion. Local traditions in Burma, Siam, Malaya, Java, Bali, and several parts of Indochina disappeared in wave after wave of such cultural conquests. Most shadow puppet performances in several Asian countries were based on the two Indian epic poems, the Ramayana for those where Buddhism took root and the Mahabharata for those where Hindu ideals were more acceptable. On the other hand, significant regional differences in the crafting of puppets, manipulation techniques, and styles of presentation suggest that puppetry may have had several origins.


China also had contacts beyond her borders in ancient times. In the Chou dynasty (circa 1000 BC) the Emperor Mu reportedly returned from a visit to Turkestan with the materials and artisans needed for making many new things, among them marionettes. As for the other forms of puppetry, the record in China is obscure. Perhaps shadow puppets came from the nomads of central Asia, or perhaps from Indochina along with the rod puppets, or across the old silk route from India, along with Buddhism. Some likely originated on the spot as had happened elsewhere. For example, legend in China attributes the origin of shadow puppets to 121 BC during the time of Wu-ti, an emperor of the Han dynasty. Overwhelmed with grief at the death of his favorite concubine, the emperor ordered the Court Magician to summon back her spirit. By dint of a darkened chamber and a distant screen, he was able to evoke a resembling shadow, with which the Emperor was satisfied. Whatever the origin of puppetry, it is fairly certain that itinerant puppeteers from China took it to Korea and thence to Japan.


Types of Puppets


A puppet has been defined as an inanimate object moved by human agency in some kind of theatrical show. That broad definition includes three main types of puppets and several hybrids. A marionette is a complete figure with articulated limbs that are controlled from above with strings. A hand puppet is a simpler figure with a hollow sleeve to conceal the puppeteer's hand which manipulates the head and arms from below. A rod puppet is a simple or complex figure which the puppeteer controls with rods from below.


Future of Puppetry


    "It is indeed impressive to be able to record that this primitive form of theatre, which grew from priestly incantations in ancient temples, is now seen by millions around the world. But the essence of puppetry does not lie in numbers. The secret of this art is to be found in the magic when an inanimate object creates an emotional contact with a human spectator. May this magic never die."


George Speaight

CHINA

NDIA

INDONESIA

CAMBODIA

VIETNAM