The Spirit of Chinese Shadow Puppet Theater

Article excerpt

The 2000-year-old art of Chinese shadow puppetry provides a wonderful vehicle for bringing together art and literature. At Beacon Hill Elementary School in Seattle, we embarked on month-long exploration of the world of Asian puppetry and folktales. We made arts the centerpiece of our project and it was not only great fun, but proved to be a very effective tool in getting students excited about reading and writing.

Our students read dozens of stories, learned about Chinese shadow puppets through an interactive CD-ROM, kept notebooks for play ideas, created numerous puppets, designed a theater and stage sets, wrote plays and put on a series of performances.

From the beginning there was an extremely high level of interest in the project; the students were particularly excited by the arts component--creating the puppets, scenery and theater. This excitement proved to be a powerful motivator as reluctant writers became enthusiastic authors once they had; puppets in need of a play.

CHINESE SHADOW PUPPETS The art of shadow puppetry evolved as a unique form of theater in Asia. India and China each claim to be the birthplace of shadow puppets and both cultures developed a rich tradition of vibrant puppetry that, in turn, influenced puppets in many other Asian countries. In China, shadow puppet theater was a form of popular entertainment in busy night markets, where crowds of merchants, peasants and travelers would gather to see performances based on myths, local legends and religious parables.

The puppets themselves are intricately carved and vividly painted with a style that evolved from the traditional Chinese art of paper-cutting. Each region of China has a distinct style, identified by the intricacy of the cut designs and the size of the puppets.

Creating Asian puppets was a perfect arts project for Beacon Hill Elementary School, a richly diverse community where Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish are spoken as often as English. Thus, incorporating a multicultural curriculum was vital in enriching the learning of our students. The 24 fourth- and fifth-grade students involved in the puppet project came from Cambodia, China, Guatemala, India, Japan, Mexico, Vietnam and the United States.

INTRODUCING THE PUPPET PROJECT We began our exploration by viewing the CD-ROM Chinese Shadow Puppet Theater (Pentewa Interactive). The students were clearly entranced with the animated puppet play, "The Honest Farmer," and it gave them a chance to see the puppets in action. Other resource materials that we used to acquaint students with shadow puppets were three beautifully illustrated books: Chinese Folk Art, by Nancy Zeng Berliner; Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, by Liu Jilin; and Asian Puppets: Wall of the World, by The University of California.

Next came the folktales. The students were able to choose from dozens of books on Asian folktales that we had checked out from the library. Children enjoyed the folktales, and the fact that most of the stories were short, encouraged readers at all levels of proficiency to read many of them. Each student kept a notebook in which they wrote short synopses of stories, assessed how well each story could be adapted as a play and noted characters, plots and acts.

With six iMac computers in the classroom, the students had the opportunity to use the CD-ROM program on their own, learn about the history and construction of puppets, and use the interactive design features to create a variety of puppets on-screen. Over the next week, students spent time every day either reading folktales or using the computers, and keeping notes in their workbooks.

WRITING THE PLAYS Theater, of course, is a collective endeavor and cooperative group work was one of our objectives. The students were divided into groups, each student presenting his or her favorite folktale to the group. Then the discussions and lively negotiations began as the groups had to decide whether to write an original play, choose a story to adapt, or some combination of the two. …