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History of the glove puppetry in China

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In China, puppetry and opera have always been very close. It is even believed that the puppets are at the origin of the Chinese Opera. The tradition of glove puppetry originates from Fu Jian, it dates back to the 16th century when satirical pieces criticizing the eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1527) appeared. Originally rudimentary, it has become over the centuries a style of Chinese opera in miniature with the peculiarities inherent to this genre: a complete show with songs and acrobatics where dramas and comedies mingle. If hand puppets have reached a very high degree of refinement, it is because of their sacred purpose. They were most often used on the occasion of religious festivals for the entertainment of the gods. A puppet show costing much less than an opera performance, it was used for obvious reasons of economy.

But the puppeteers have developed a genre as refined as the theater of actors. They were concerned with making the gods forget that they were presenting them “only” puppets by adopting names clearly specifying their affiliation with life-size theater. This is particularly the case with the name of the Yi wan Jan troupe which could be translated in French as “assuredly similar” ... to the real theater. Another example: some puppets wear, like the actors, underwear that is invisible to the eye, but clearly signifying their status as “real” actors. In this permanent mirror game, the puppeteers have developed a genre which, while remaining close to opera, is not a miniature copy of it, but an art in its own right which has found the marks of its own genius.


This particular type of puppet specific to Fu Jian and Taiwan is called zhang zhong xi (palm theater) or bu dai xi (canvas bag theater), because the central piece of the puppet is a kind of small bag in which we slip our hand. The term bu dai xi comes from the Indian putali which meant puppets in the languages spoken of the Indian subcontinent.It is undoubtedly through the long established maritime exchanges with this region that this style of puppet arrived in the

Fu Jian. Nowadays, the hand puppets have become in Taiwan an important marker of the identity of the country through the figure of Master Li Tien-Lu who gave his letters of nobility to this folk art.

Puppetry and Opera

It is impossible to talk about puppets in China without talking about opera. The reciprocal influence of puppets and theater is permanent. However, it is believed that the puppet theater was born before the theater. The source would be the statuettes used for funeral rites. Over time, as often, a shift from ritual to spectacle took place. We find this same phenomenon as far as France where the word puppet comes from Marie. Dolls were used from the Middle Ages to evoke the Blessed Virgin in sketches performed on the forecourt of churches. The term puppet finds its origin here. It is even believed that puppets were the origin of actor theater in China.


There are some clues that corroborate this theory: for example, an opera actor always calls a puppeteer “master”. Another example, the actors who wait in the wings before going on stage say that they are “hooked” (gua) as one hangs a puppet between two scenes. It also seems that the gestures of the actors of Chinese opera are directly inspired by the movements of the puppets, as well as the make-up, very present in the actors, would be a reminiscence of the paintings of the heads of the puppets. On the other hand, the music, the costumes were borrowed from the theater of actors.


Our musical glove puppet plays

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