Chinese Puppetry

Category: Performing ArtsSocial Practices, Rituals and Festive Events

Traditional Chinese puppetry was brought to Singapore with the arrival of early Chinese immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.  A typical traditional Chinese puppet performance comprises puppeteers who manoeuvre the puppets behind the stage, and musicians who accompany the performance with instruments such as clappers, cymbals, flute, erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument) and suona (double-reeded horn).

Chinese PuppetryA puppeteer manoeuvring a Chinese rod puppet. National Heritage Board's Chinese Puppetry Documentation Project 2015/2016.

These puppet performances usually depict classic tales and stories that are passed down through generations, and the puppeteers would narrate the stories through speech and/or songs. In Singapore, Chinese puppetry forms vary across dialect groups, and they include Teochew iron-rod puppets, Hainanese rod puppets, Hokkien string puppets, Hokkien glove puppets and Henghua string puppets, each with its own style of puppetry, props and music.

Traditional Chinese puppet performances are closely linked to Taoist and Chinese religious festivals. Troupes are often invited by temples to perform on feast days (also known as birthdays) of deities, as a form of offering in return for blessings. Puppet performances are also common during Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节) (also known as Hungry Ghost Festival), where the performances are staged for deities and spirits from the underworld.

In the past, Chinese puppet performances were popular as forms of entertainment for overseas Chinese who missed their hometowns. Chinese puppet troupes would also be invited to perform at special occasions such as birthday celebrations and weddings. Over the years, Chinese puppetry has declined due to factors such as the availability of different forms of entertainment.

In recent years, there have been a number of theatre practitioners in Singapore who have weaved elements from traditional Chinese puppetry with contemporary forms to reach out to newer audiences, and are promoting the art form through stage productions and outreach programmes to schools and the general public. 

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