Performing arts

Puppet master sticks to his style

Updated: Feb 17, 2023 By Xu Lin and Sun Ruisheng (China Daily) Print
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Stick puppets in costume dramas coproduced by the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are capable of complicated movements, and are all handmade by Wang Maowei, a puppet artist from Shanxi province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

New materials and shorter shows help to modernize traditional art form, Xu Lin and Sun Ruisheng report in Taiyuan.

Several stick puppets, dressed in traditional costumes, frolic on stage. They are able to change their facial expressions and perform complicated movements, such as dance with flapping long sleeves, practice calligraphy and even spit fire.

Puppeteers are positioned below and use three rods to manipulate the head and hands of these puppets.

Such dexterity can't be achieved without the painstaking effort of puppet makers like Wang Maowei, who is from Xiaoyi, Shanxi province.

Adept at making exquisite stick puppets, the 40-year-old has achieved the title of Shanxi provincial level arts and crafts master.

"I've understood the spirit of craftspeople for years. When I chose puppet-making as a teenager, I gradually fell in love with it and decided to dedicate myself to the craft and make it a lifelong occupation," he says.

Stick puppet plays were introduced to Xiaoyi during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the art form enjoyed its heyday during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

In 2008, Xiaoyi's stick puppet plays, which are popular in the city and neighboring regions, were added to the national intangible cultural heritage list.


Stick puppets in costume dramas coproduced by the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are capable of complicated movements, and are all handmade by Wang Maowei, a puppet artist from Shanxi province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Wang's parents, now retired, used to work with Xiaoyi Shadow Puppetry and Puppet Troupe — his mother was a puppeteer and his father was an instrumentalist.

Imperceptibly influenced by his parents, Wang followed in their footsteps and, when he was 17, he went to Xi'an, Shaanxi province, to learn puppet-making from a master craftsman. After spending seven years there, he returned to hometown to work with the same troupe that his parents once did.

The troupe performs regularly at scenic areas and schools, and the local government has recently paid them to tour rural areas to entertain villagers.

It takes 40 to 50 days to make a stick puppet. The average height of a puppet is 75 centimeters to 1 meter, and it has different costumes to fit various plays and plots.

"The master teaches the trade, but the skill of the apprentice is self-made. To make puppets, you need to have sensitivity, with a basic foundation of fine arts. The most difficult part is to persist, because it can be monotonous and hard work," Wang says.

By his strict standard, it takes at least five years to serve an apprenticeship.

"If a pupil wants to outdo his teacher, it's important to keep up with the times and be creative, rather than stay in the same old rut," he says.


Stick puppets in costume dramas coproduced by the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are capable of complicated movements, and are all handmade by Wang Maowei, a puppet artist from Shanxi province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The changing face of puppetry

Puppet plays have a relatively small audience, and in 2015, Wang realized that changes must be made, to cater to the market and draw new audience members.

Traditional Xiaoyi puppet plays use the style of local operas, which are appealing to the elderly, but now the troupe only uses background music for better audience understanding.

Wang adds that today's audiences have no patience to sit for more than two hours watching a puppet play like they did before.

Traditionally, stick puppets are carved from wood and they are time-consuming to make and heavy to hold.

As his teacher did, Wang makes his figures with used newspaper so that they are lighter and easier for puppeteers to hold and manipulate.

Wang also uses paste from traditional Chinese herbs to make the puppets more durable.

After numerous experiments with different light materials, he found that a special kind of kraft paper (a type of cardboard) is also a perfect substitute.

More importantly, it means that craftspeople can put gears inside the hollowed puppet heads to allow them to be mechanically operated — the nose, eyes and mouth of a puppet can all move via the use of rods.


Wang Maowei holds a Monkey King puppet head, and demonstrates its ability to spit fire from its mouth. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Wang is blazing new trails and combines the traditional craftsmanship with modern technology.

His well-designed puppets can not only execute complicated movements, but also perform bianlian, or face-changing, a traditional Chinese opera stunt.

Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel, has been frequently adapted to puppet shows. In the tale, the Monkey King is depicted with the ability to tell monsters from ordinary human beings, with his piercing eyes. To recreate this power in a vivid way, in his show, Wang makes the Monkey King puppet shoot laser beams from his eyes and spit fire from its mouth.

In the past, puppet makers used homemade pigments such as charcoal and cinnabar to decorate their puppets. Nowadays, they can choose from various paints to ensure the "makeup" of their puppets is on point.

Wang says that, after these improvements, Xiaoyi stick puppets are more refined and delicate, with mechanisms to control them. He balances the traditions of puppet-making with a modern aesthetic, and his puppets have natural-looking features.

"It costs time and energy to create an exquisite piece of work. As the fruit of my painstaking work, these puppets are like my own children and I always take good care of them. I feel sad if one of my puppets gets damaged accidentally during a performance," he says.

Wang attributes his reforms of the puppet art to his early years as an apprentice in Xi'an. There, he once participated in the production of several costume puppet dramas for TV, coproduced by the Chinese mainland and Taiwan during the 2000s.

He recalls that the director from Taiwan had a very high standard for puppet plays, and craftspeople had to hone their manufacturing and performance skills. He brushed up his technique during the process.

"You had to make the puppet's faces look natural and delicate for the camera under the lighting, especially for close-ups. It's very different from a stage performance, in which the audience is sitting some distance away," he says.

"Puppeteers operated in a restricted area to accommodate the cameras, and ensured their performance was very smooth."


Wang Maowei's 17-year-old son Wang Yifeng (second from the left in the second row) at a summer puppet performance training camp in Xiaoyi, Shanxi province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Handing down the skill

The more awards and titles Wang has won as a puppet maker, the more responsibility he feels, and the more he loves his profession.

He recalls that, in the early, difficult times, when his son had just been born, he had to drive a taxi after work to make ends meet.

Thanks to the national policy to protect intangible cultural heritage, he now has a stable salary and subsidies for his craft. He can put more energy into research and development, with more opportunities to communicate with his peers.

He says that, like other forms of traditional craftsmanship, there are fewer young people interested in learning the technique, as they have many alternative careers to choose from.

He teaches optional courses of puppet-making and performing at schools to foster the interest of students, hoping that they will at least adopt it as a hobby. He looks forward to the day that the city government establishes a puppet-play course at a vocational school.

Wang's 17-year-old son, Wang Yifeng, started to learn how to manipulate a stick puppet at 14. Aches in his arms came with the territory because he had to hold the puppet up above his shoulders for a long time. He helps his father when he can, doing simple tasks in the puppet-making process.

"I'm lucky to have been born into a family of puppeteers. I've been exposed to the folk art since childhood and I want to inherit the craftsmanship in the future," the son says.

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