Preserving Shanghai's unique puppetry tradition

Qiu Zheqian Tang Dafei Zhou Shengjie
He Xiaoqiong, head of the Shanghai Puppet Theater, fell into puppetry by accident. Now, she is keeping the unique Shanghai style alive for modern audiences.
Qiu Zheqian Tang Dafei Zhou Shengjie
Directed by Tang Dafei. Edited by Zhou Shengjie. Special thanks to Terence Friel.

He Xiaoqiong fell to puppetry by chance — she had no idea what she was getting into.

“Why I took up being a puppeteer as my career involved quite a bit of luck,” says the head of the Shanghai Puppet Theater.

It was recommended to her by her headmaster at the College of Chinese Opera at the Shanghai Theater Academy.

“Actually, I had no idea then what puppetry was, but I thought it could be interesting,” she says.

In the end, it became her lifelong work.

Puppetry has a 2,000-year history. But Shanghai's style is unique in the world, influenced by ancient traditions and then the city's opening up to the outside world in 1843.

Shanghai puppetry gradually formed rich geographical characteristics as the content of performances changed from ancient themes to contemporary topics, and the location of performances moved from the streets into theaters.

She is grateful to her teacher, Chen Weiqun, one of the most distinguished puppet masters in China. She didn’t just learn how to properly manipulate the puppets, but also learned how to use emotion.

"Conveying through the puppet what you are feeling is the essence of puppetry, which is the core value of my teacher’s performance. That is, to be honest, the most difficult part of puppetry,” she says.

One of the biggest breakthroughs of He’s career was her performance in the critically acclaimed "The Little Match Girl".

Before that play, proficiency in the manipulation of puppets was the only criterion to judge a puppeteer’s work.

But then people started to realize that voice acting also plays a big role. Because of her groundbreaking work on that play, He went on to win two top awards, both in manipulating and in voice acting.

“I am so happy that what I did has changed a little bit of the development of puppetry,” she says.

In recent years, "Mulan" — the story of the legendary Chinese woman warrior — has been the most popular play for the  Shanghai Puppet Theater, winning both a reputation and income.

When asked why, He mentions the main aim of the Shanghai Puppet Theater: to serve children.

Talking about the significance of Shanghai puppetry on children, He says that just because puppetry is mostly created for children, it doesn’t mean they create “childish” scripts.

“Children are always coming to the theater with their parents, so it’s a good time for family discussion,” she says.

“They won’t only enjoy the play itself, they’ll also get something out of the discussion that follows — we want children to feel the beauty of puppetry both in the theater and out of the theater.”

Nowadays, tradition and innovation are neck and neck in Shanghai puppetry.

The most recent play "Chuangshi: Butian" is based on the myth of Nuwa, the goddess who created humans.

“We are generating new ideas in the arts all the time,” He says.

The Shanghai Puppet Theater has cooperated with the Shanghai Theater Academy to open an undergraduate course on puppetry to help ensure the continuation of this ancient art.

“Without the people, there’s no possibility of passing this culture on," she says.

“But what we need is far beyond people, we need talent. Only talent can help pass on and develop Shanghai puppetry, that’s the bottom line.”

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