"Antique" or "vintage" Chinese opera glove puppets can be found for sale on eBay, Etsy, and other online marketplaces. However, the convenience of buying such a puppet online can be more than offset by the risk when you have only photos on which to base your purchasing decision. Below are two examples of erroneously labeled "vintage" Chinese glove puppets with observations to help you avoid suffering buyer's remorse.
Example 1: This puppet priced around $25 USD was advertised as being a "vintage item from the 1960s," made of "silk, porcelain, hair, pearl, and beads." Well, it is a perfectly respectable, toy-grade, Chinese glove puppet at a decent price. However, unless it has been locked away in a box since the 1960s, I doubt it is "vintage." I mean, really, there is no indication of color fading and hardly a wrinkle or crease. And I assure you that the costume is made of a lightweight synthetic material, the head, hands, and feet are molded hard plastic, and any hair and pearls are artificial. I suspect the puppet is fresh off the assembly line and only described as "vintage" to make it eligible for sale on Etsy. In addition, translation errors may be responsible for some inaccuracies in the product description. That all said, it is a nice toy.
Example 2: This unattractively photographed puppet priced around $24 USD was advertised as being in "fair vintage condition" and featuring a "painted porcelain face with silky fabric attire." As in the first example, this is a toy-grade Chinese glove puppet; however, as admitted by the seller, it has more condition issues than its peer profiled above. The definition of "vintage" being vague, this puppet is no older than the advent of molded plastic, synthetic fabric, and machine stitching. And those jiggly eyes decorating the midriff of the costume are neither old nor high quality.
The Genuine Article: Now this is an authentic, vintage, 40-year-old, Chinese opera glove puppet, which happens to be outfitted in typically flashy Taiwanese style (i.e., with lots of metal bling). The handsome face of its hand-carved wooden head glows with the patina of age and its costume displays the fading and wear of time. I imagine a manufacturer could replicate this look so as to charge a higher price, but the higher cost of production would make such counterfeits unprofitable unless they were truly exceptional. In this case, have no doubt: this is the look of craftsmanship embellished by time; this is vintage.
Because it is extremely difficult – if not downright impossible – to pose a Chinese opera glove puppet with one hand and take photos of it with the other, we have provided below simple instructions for preparing a stand to pose your puppet. You may like the results so much that you will keep your posed puppet on display 24/7!
Step 1: Purchase or make a puppet stand.
Usually, a puppet is sold with a stand consisting of a square or round base with an insertable rod tall enough to accommodate the puppet's height. Depending upon the quality of the puppet, the stand will be made of either molded plastic or varnished or painted wood.
If you do not have a stand or want to replace a plastic stand with a wooden one, you can buy suitable bases and dowels/rods in a craft or home improvement store. To assemble your own stand, drill a hole in the center of the wooden base, insert an appropriately sized rod, and varnish or paint as you prefer.
Step 2: Buy or borrow a ruler or measuring tape; a few feet of inexpensive, bendable, insulated wire that will retain a shape; wire cutters; and a roll of painter's, masking, or other tape that will not leave a sticky residue when removed.
Step 3: To prepare the stand to pose the puppet's head, cut about 2 to 3 inches of wire and tape it to the top of the rod so that enough wire is exposed to reach up inside the hollow head. To protect the inside of the head from getting scratched, roll some tape around the wire's cut end.
Step 4: To prepare the stand to pose the puppet's arms, measure the arm span of the puppet, add an inch or so to allow the wire to be bent around the rod, and cut that length of wire. Then, bend the middle of the wire around the rod at the point where the puppet's arms will be. To protect the inside of the puppet's cloth body and costume from getting snagged and torn, roll some tape around the wire's two cut ends.
Step 5: To prepare the stand to pose the puppet's legs, measure the lengths of the legs, add about 2 to 3 inches to allow the wire to be bent around the rod and curved around each of the puppet's legs, and cut that length of wire. Then, bend the middle of the wire around the rod at the point where the tops of the puppet's legs will be. To protect the puppet's cloth legs and costume from getting snagged and torn, roll some tape around the wire's two cut ends.
Step 6: Slip the puppet over the stand, feed each end of the arm wire into a puppet arm and arrange as desired, and curve each half of the leg wire around a puppet leg and position it in a standing, stepping, or kicking pose. Enjoy modeling and photographing your puppet!
Chinese opera glove puppets come in five grades of quality/value based on their attributes and uses. Knowing how these grades differ is important for puppet makers, performers, and collectors. By familiarizing yourself with the differences, you can ensure that you are purchasing or assembling the correct grade of puppet for your purpose and not overpaying in the process.
Toy Grade: for play
Head, Hands, and Feet: plastic
Body: combined with costume (i.e., costume cannot be changed)
Costume: machine-made; simple design
Notes: Toy grade is commonly referred to as a children's puppet; however, it is neither safe nor suitable for very young children because of its fragility and small parts that pose a choking hazard.
Educational Grade: for public instruction and private display
Head, Hands, and Feet: plastic
Body: separate from costume (i.e., costume can be changed)
Costume: machine-made; more complex and decorative design
Cost: slightly expensive
Notes: This grade of puppet serves to familiarize the public with the nature of performance-grade puppets (see below).
Training Grade: for puppeteer training
Head, Hands, and Feet: wood (head unfinished)
Body: separate from costume (i.e., costume can be changed)
Costume: machine-made; simple, plain design
Cost: moderately expensive due to unusual nature
Notes: Because training-grade puppets are used by novice puppeteers to practice acrobatics, flying spins, and kicks, they must be durable enough to withstand the many falls and impacts that inevitably result.
Performance Grade: for theatrical performance and private display
Head, Hands, and Feet: wood (primed and painted)
Body: separate from costume (i.e., costume can be changed)
Costume: machine-made or handmade construction and simple or decorative design depending upon a puppet theater group's budget and the importance of a puppet's role in a production
Cost: moderately expensive
These workhorse puppets require durable bodies and costumes that can survive repeated, multi-hour performances and be repaired when worn or damaged.
Puppet theater groups can assemble their puppets from purchased or self-made component parts (e.g., heads, bodies, costumes, hats, etc.) to save money or to customize their appearance.
For variety's sake and to impress audiences, puppet theater groups utilize collectible-grade puppets (see below) for the main characters in a performance assuming their budgets can accommodate the added expense.
Some collectors prefer to purchase and display performance-grade puppets--especially, those that show signs of use.
Collectible Grade: for private display by serious collectors and use as major characters in theatrical performances by puppet troupes with large budgets
Head, Hands, and Feet: wood; the head is carved, primed, and painted by a master sculptor; the eyes and/or jaw may move; the hair is styled by a hair artist
Body: separate from costume (i.e., costume can be changed)
Costume: hand sewn and decoratively stitched and embroidered; very complex and ornate design
Cost: very expensive
Notes: These are elaborately ornamented showpieces designed to impress.
Hsien Tan: a female servant that can be either a lead or supporting role depending on the character's cultural and educational status.
Jin/Ching Roles are characters with painted faces that symbolize their personalities. Common facial colors include black (representing crudeness and rashness), red (loyalty), and green (treachery). Subcategories include:
Kai Tsui Ta Tan: a painted-face antagonist role that is all bark and no bite, such as a mountain bandit.
Chou Roles are clowns/jesters. They are the comedians of glove puppet theater who entertain with flippant words and comic deeds. This is a role that can be protagonist or antagonist, loyal, traitorous, or self-contradictory.
Mo Roles are elderly characters. Subcategories include:
Chun Kong: a charitable, elderly, male role, 70 to 80 years old.
Pai Kuo: a poor, kindhearted, elderly, male role, 90 to 100 years old.
Tong Roles are young characters.
Za Roles are gods/immortals and evil spirits.
Shou Roles are animals, such as tigers, horses, bulls, lions, etc.
Because the romanization of Mandarin varies, some of the categories and names listed above have multiple spellings.
Since English-language sources are scarce, the above list is probably incomplete. If you identify omissions or errors, please e-mail additions or corrections to email@example.com so that we can present the most comprehensive and accurate information. Thank you.
Classified as a glove, hand, or palm puppet, a traditional Chinese opera puppet consists of a glove-like, fabric-crafted body (usually 30 cm tall) with movable arms that is topped with a hollowed-out head. In addition, a Chinese opera puppet has cloth-sewn legs that end with shod feet. The puppet's body is manipulated by sliding the hand up the fabric pouch of the torso and inserting the index finger into the head, the middle, ring, and pinkie fingers into one arm, and the thumb into the other. The legs are manipulated either with the fingers of the other hand or by moving the body. Lastly, the puppet is typically clothed in a colorful, ornately decorated outer garment, which, in the case of more expensive puppets, can be changed. In its entirety, a handcrafted Chinese opera puppet is a work of fine art that exhibits many skills, such as carving, painting, weaving, sewing, and embroidery.
Chinese Opera Puppet Heads
More expensive antique and collectible Chinese opera puppets have hollowed-out wooden heads that are meticulously crafted by master sculptors. (In contrast, the heads of less expensive, mass-market puppets are made of molded plastic.) In the above photo, you can see how a head is carved from a block of wood, assembled, primed, painted, and decorated. The most elaborate wooden heads consist of three pieces and feature movable eyes and jaws. Most importantly, the face's expression and decoration reflect the puppet's character and theatrical role (e.g., an otherworldly god, a distinguished nobleman, a fierce warrior, a deceitful villain, a refined scholar, a beautiful princess, an aged sage, a laughing clown, an ugly monster, etc.).
Chinese Opera Puppet Hands
Hinge-Style Hand (note the coil of wire inserted into the palm of the hand for holding the handles of fans and calligraphy brushes)
Likewise, depending upon expense, a Chinese opera puppet's hands are either carved from wood or molded from plastic. Hands come in two styles: a fist style for martial characters with a hole drilled through the center for holding and wielding a sword, halberd, staff, etc., and a hinge style applicable to non-military/civilian characters (e.g, noblemen, scholars, priests, etc.) for manipulating a folding fan, book, calligraphy brush, fly whisk, etc. Under the control of a master puppeteer, these hands are capable of lifelike movements and gestures. (Advance to 1:00 in the video below to see Taiwanese puppet master Chen Xi-Haung demonstrate how a Chinese opera puppet can handle a calligraphy brush stage prop.)
四方匙硬盔 - YouTube
Chinese Opera Puppet Feet
The feet of Chinese opera puppets, like the hands, are fashioned either from wood or plastic depending upon the quality and cost of the puppet. In addition, the style of foot varies based on the puppet's gender and character/role: for example, generals and warriors sport large, rugged-looking, boldly colored boots, scholars and priests wear modest traditional black shoes, and noblewomen are attired in decoratively embroidered slippers.
Chinese Opera Puppet Embellishments and Accessories
Chinese opera puppets' hair--both scalp and facial--is either painted on or glued on using synthetic or animal hair. In the latter case, the hair can either hang free or be fashioned into intricate styles. As you can see in the above photo, men's hair and beards are generally long and unbound whereas women's hair (see third image from the left) tends to be ornately arranged and adorned.
Hats, Headdresses, and Crowns
The hats, headdresses, and crowns that adorn the heads of more expensive Chinese opera puppets are an art form unto themselves. Whereas headdresses apply to generals and warriors and crowns to nobility, hats are worn by bureaucrats, scholars, priests, court jesters, etc. As you can see from the examples in the above photo, their styles are manifold and their crafting is patently painstaking and time-intensive. Ornamentation includes silver and gold stitching, multicolored embroidery, beadwork, gemstones, feathers, pom-poms, ribbons, and tassels.
暢舍巾軟盔製作技術 - YouTube
There are no English subtitles, but you can see for yourself how Taiwanese puppetmaster Chen Xi-Huang handcrafts a Chinese opera puppet hat.
Chinese glove puppet theater's historical and fictional characters with prowess in the Chinese martial arts (i.e, wushu or kung fu) wield a wide array of melee weaponry from antiquity, including a variety of knives, swords, polearms (such as staffs, spears, pikes, halberds, and crescent-bladed guandaos), battle-axes, maces, war hammers, chain weapons, whips, and bows and arrows.
Other Stage Props
As displayed below, Chinese opera puppets perform with diverse accessories, such as handheld fans (both folding and fixed), calligraphy brushes, scrolls, books, smoking pipes, fly whisks, animals such as horses, and even mini Chinese opera puppets!
On a very hot and humid Saturday afternoon in mid-July at the Puppetry Art Center of Taipei, a group of about a dozen adults attends a session of a multi-class workshop on traditional glove puppet design and performance.
During the first part of the class, a female instructor reviews and explains the construction of one of the many styles of puppet hats and headdresses. Tracing drawn patterns onto thick paper, the students cut out the component parts of the hat. They then glue colored fabric to the paper cutouts and hand stitch delicate, complex designs onto the paper-backed fabric using threads of multiple colors. Lastly, they fold and assemble the parts to form the hat into its proper shape and adorn it with ornate decorations, including sparkling jewels, flashing sequins, and boldly colored pom-poms and ribbons. To complete the work, each student needs a small toolbox crammed with bobbins of thread, super-fine sewing needles, pins, thin wire, white glue, scissors, pliers, and a hole punch as well as ample patience stemming from a love of glove puppetry.
During the latter half of the class, the master puppeteer's apprentice demonstrates the performance techniques for various puppet movements, such as walking, running, shuffling, sitting, standing, twirling, leaping, flipping, kicking, and gesturing with the arms. Depending on a puppet's character (e.g, a warrior, scholar, princess, elderly sage, etc.), the types and styles of movements differ considerably. By practicing reflecting character in movement and dialogue, the students strive to create the illusion of imbuing a puppet with life.
View the videos below to see the movement styles of different puppet characters.
布袋戲動作示範—武生。＜亦宛然＞ - YouTube
布袋戲動作示範—文生。＜亦宛然＞ - YouTube
If you travel to Taiwan, make sure you visit the Puppetry Center of Taipei to see how it both preserves the history and promotes the future of traditional glove puppet theater.
The above YouTube video shows three, brief, nonsequential segments of a Taiwanese glove puppet theater performance of the story of the classic Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms." In the first segment, the character Guan Yu (with the red face) tells Cao Cao (wearing a red robe) that he will fight Hua Xiong who is coming to kill Cao Cao. In the second segment, the sworn "brothers" Zhang Fei (wearing a black robe), Guan Yu, and Liu Bei (holding two swords) display their martial prowess in preparation of battling the reputedly invincible warrior Lu Bu. In the third segment, the brotherhood engage in strenous combat with Lu Bu (wearing two long feathers in his warrior headdress). The segment-specific notes below offer a few insights into both the puppets and the performance.
Segment 1 (0:00-1:17)
Guan Yu's close-up shows off the detailed construction of his ornate warrior headdress, including its sculpting, beadwork, jewels, sequins, pom-poms, and tassels. The fine detail is especially noteworthy given a traditional glove puppet stands only 14-15 inches tall.
Notice how the puppeteers' performance technique makes the puppets' head and arm movements appear lifelike within the context of the dialogue. This is all the more impressive because only the master puppeteer gives voice to the puppets.
The close-ups display the two types of puppet hands: (1.) a fixed, closed fist with a hole in the middle that can hold the shafts and hilts of weapons and (2.) an open, hinged hand that allows for expressive gestures.
Lastly, the more distant views show the stage's elaborately decorated backdrop that hides the black-garbed puppeteers from sight.
Segment 2 (1:18-2:32)
Acrobatics, featuring turns, spins, ducks, and leaps, fine hand manipulation necessary for the realistic brandishing of weapons, and slow martial stepping are all on view. From all this, you can see how traditional glove puppet theater set the dramatic foundation for China's cinematic historical martial arts epics.
Segment 3 (2:33-4:04)
The last scene demonstrates the physical coordination required to reenact the dramatic battle between Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Lu Bu. Also of note are the impassioned vocalizations of the lead puppeteer and the crescendoing music of the live band's traditional Chinese instruments.
Chen Xi-Huang (陳錫煌) is a revered master of traditional glove puppet theater in Taiwan. Born in 1931, the eldest son of celebrated puppetmaster Li Tian-Lu, he began performing glove puppet theater with his father at the age of thirteen. Over a long, successful career spanning 70+ years, Chen advanced the development of Taiwanese glove puppetry, achieving an unprecedented level of excellence while performing worldwide in over 30 countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Even more importantly, he has trained generations of puppeteers, passing on a lifetime of puppet-making techniques and performance experience. Renowned for his professionalism and dedication to mastering the extensive repertoire of traditional glove puppet theater, Chen inspires both his students and artistic collaborators. To this day, he lives in Taipei and shares his love for and knowledge of glove puppetry at workshops for the public at the Puppetry Art Center of Taipei.
Asian Design Outlet is more than just an online store. It is a medium for appreciating and promoting both traditional and contemporary East Asian arts and crafts--particularly those of China and Taiwan as well as Japan and Korea. Strongly rooted in their respective cultures, these distinct yet overlapping artistic aesthetics have perpetuated their original forms and evolved into new expressions over millennia. However, our technological modernity and globalization now increasingly endanger the uniquely beautiful manifestations of these cultural heritages. In the blog posts to follow, we will profile East Asian arts and crafts and the artists who preserve and develop them with the aim of helping support both.
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