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Bringing Chinese puppet art into American classrooms

By LIU YINMENG in Los Angeles | | Updated: 2022-05-28 10:15

A group of kindergartners learn to paint and assemble puppets when attending an online Chinese puppet demonstration on Thursday at a kindergarten in Portland, Oregon. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Puppet shows have entertained generations of Chinese audiences with their delicate costumes, vibrant character personalities and a wide repertoire of play and music.

On Thursday, this traditional Chinese performance art became the subject of a virtual "course" taught by Fujian puppet masters to American students learning about Chinese culture and language.

The event "Meet with Masters: Know about Fujian Puppet Arts" was co-organized by the Oregon China Council and Fujian Provincial Foreign Affairs Office, Zhangzhou Municipal Foreign Affairs Office, as well as Zhangzhou Puppet Troupe. It introduced students to the history and arts of Fujian puppetry, an intangible Chinese cultural heritage.

"For many in Fujian, puppetry means history, culture and happy memories of our childhoods. I hope our friends in Oregon, both kids and adults, will like it", said Yin Dan, deputy director of the division of American and Oceanian Affairs at Fujian Provincial Foreign Affairs Office.

Fujian is rich in intangible culture heritage. Including puppetry, the province has eight elements selected to be included in the UNESCO's list of intangible culture heritage. This event could be the beginning step to strengthen people to people and cultural exchanges between civilizations, she said.

Emily Chen Palmer, founder of the Oregon-based XSTREAM Learning Center and Bamboo International School, which offer Chinese Immersion programs, said the event is a great opportunity for her students to enrich their understanding of the Chinese culture.

Students embarked on a virtual tour of Zhangzhou Puppet Museum, where they were introduced to the various types of Chinese puppets including shadow puppets, string puppets, rod puppets and glove puppets.

They got a glimpse of the various puppet characters, which sat on shelves of the museum, from the monkey king from the novel "Journey to the West" to characters in "Farewell, my concubine", a classic Peking opera. In addition, audiences saw puppet props such as tiny forms of thrones and knives. They also saw a demonstration of the carving of puppet heads.

To further illustrate how artists manipulate the tiny puppets, artisans put together "Daming Prefecture", one of the masterpieces of Chinese literatures. During the show, the puppeteers made the characters do different stunts, such as somersaults and swinging the silk sleeves to express the emotions of the characters.

Fujian puppetry consists mainly of string and hand puppetry.

Just like the actors on stage, to which splitting of the legs is a basic training, puppeteers need to practice the splitting of their fingers, said Chen Lihui, provincial inheritor of puppet performing art, said during "a hand exercise".

The index finger of a puppeteer controls the head of puppet, the three other fingers control one hand of the puppet, while the thumb controls another hand, he added.

Norah sabharwal, 3, learns to assemble a puppet when attending an online Chinese puppet demonstration on Thursday at a kindergarten in Portland, Oregon. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Under the instructions of the puppet artist Li Zhijie, students learned to make a simple puppet head (a panda) using common household items such as newspaper, toilet paper, tape and color pens.

Civilizations are enriched by exchanges and mutual learning, Chen said. He hopes the puppets could be a window for the students to know traditional Chinese culture, to understand China through puppetry and to fall in love with China.

In his opening remarks, Stephen Ying, vice president of Oregon China Council, said one could understand the Chinese culture through the art of puppets.

Learning about the culture enhances mutual-understanding, he said, adding, "the more we understand each other, then we can become good friends."

Chinese puppetry dates back thousands of years. The oldest puppets were probably used in religious ceremonies in ancient times as representations of gods and shamans. Eventually, puppet shows became a popular form of entertainment. Glove puppets developed in Fujian sometime between the 13th and 16th century.

In 2006, the puppet show and head carving of the Zhangzhou Puppet Troupe were included in the first batch of National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China. Fujian puppet training was also selected in 2012 on the Register of Best Safeguarding Practices of UNESCO.

On Monday, students from The Potomac School in Virginia participated in a similar program co-hosted by China's Embassy in the US and Fujian Provincial Foreign Affairs Office.

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