How to Make a Simplified Colored Plastic Chinese Shadow Puppet

In February, I got to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to present a demonstration/workshop combo to a huge number of visitors to their ‘China Day’ festivities. The development team and I talked quite a bit about how to handle such a large number of audience members in a very short amount of time. I ended up developing some simplified colored, plastic Chinese-style shadow puppets that are simplified (only 2 rods and 6 joints) from the original Chinese shadow puppet design (3 rods and 9/10 joints).

Old Man Plastic Puppet

This simplified design helps kids and beginners start manipulating the puppets better, sooner – without sacrificing much of the puppet’s agility. And, they’re sturdy enough to hold up to hundreds of kids doing their worst and enchant them with awe at the same time. Win, win.

*Though some of the steps in the process can be fussy, it’s worth the effort. Please message me if you need additional clarity and I can edit as necessary. Of course, feel free to modify the materials and joints/etc however you see fit – “there’s many ways to skin a cat” as they say.

Tools & Materials

  • Your design in color/Color print out of traditional shadow puppet *For Chinese shadow puppet pics, click here: (and go to the aesthetic tab – all photos can be downloaded)
  • Dura-lar, acetate or other clear plastic sheeting (.030-.040” thick)     *(you’ll need about a 8.5×11” area for one 12” puppet)
  • A Black Permanent Marker
  • Colored Permanent Markers
  • A sharp scissors
  • 16 – 20 Gauge Wire (about 1’ per puppet)
  • Wire snips
  • Needle Nosed Plier
  • An Awl or Needle Tool
  • 1/8” Wooden Rods (12”-16”long) or Chopsticks
  • Duct/Gaff Tape (6”)

Begin by printing your design onto paper. (You can browse through any of the pictures in the slideshow here and download your favorite one.)

Print Your Template

Once you pick your favorite shadow puppet template, you will be tracing/coloring and cutting out the following pieces (as illustrated in the picture below):

  1. Head and torso, plus one full arm
  2. One upper arm piece
  3. One lower arm piece
  4. One hand
  5. One hip piece
  6. One front leg with foot
  7. One back leg with foot

Template Piece Breakdown

Lay this design under your piece of dura-lar plastic and tape to secure if needed. Keep in mind that you’ll be cutting out separate pieces of the design, so to maximize your plastic, push them as close together and to the edge as possible – like when you cut cookies out of rolled dough.


I start out tracing the outline in black marker, then filling out the colored patterns within the piece and going over the entire piece with black marker outlining. Of course, expriment and find which way works best for you.

Color In Your Template

After you’ve traced all your pieces and colored them in, simply cut them out with a sharp scissors.

Here comes the hard part: putting those pieces together!

Line your pieces up where they should be joined together and make a hole through both pieces with your awl or needlepoint tool.

Poke A Hole

Looking at some of the finished designs, you can get a sense of where to place these joints (hint: they’re placed almost exactly where they are on the human body – i.e. shoulder, elbow, knee.) This will give you a good approximation of where to start, but know that you might get it wrong the first time and have to try a few more holes. You’ll know the holes are in the wrong place if the puppet, at rest, hangs at an awkward angle. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Once you’ve made the joints in the correct place, now it’s time to make your wire joints. Cut a piece of wire about 1” long (step 1). Make a small circle, the size of your needle-nosed pliers, on one end and flatten it, perpendicular to the rest of the piece (step 2).

Joint Steps

Push the straight end of the wire through the joint hole.

Joint Step 2

With the straight end on the other side, make another circle and press flat (step 3). Repeat as needed! (If these joints don’t move freely, loosen the two circle ends away from the plastic joints. Play with it until it hands just right.)


Once your puppet is fully jointed together, you’ll want to attach control rods for your hands to be able to manipulate the puppet. These are usually placed (one) at thefront or back of the neck and (one) on the free hand. (See below)

Finished Puppet

For your two control rod wires, cut a wire piece about 4” long (step 1). Make a hole on the top part of the hand (where indicated) and at the back or front of the neck. In the middle of the 4” piece of wire, make a perfect circle with your needle-nosed pliers about 1/8”–1/4” in diameter (step 2).

Rod Connectors

Slide one through each hold: neck and hand.

Rod Connectors Step 2

Once through, pinch and twist the excess wire into a tight spiral.

Pinch and Twist

Tape that excess to your rod using very tacky tape (duct, gaff, etc). If your tape is 2-3” wide, rip it in half lengthwise.


Tape to Rod

Now, you’re ready to start puppeting!

Finished Puppet

*Check the’s DIY page to figure out screen and lighting options

Thanks for reading~

Reach Out and Touch Someone

As I’ve continued to delve into the world of Chinese shadow puppetry, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that the form’s continued obscurity is one of its main obstacles to survival. In North America, when I begin to tell someone what I do, and they’re kind enough not to glaze over in the eyes, I usually get one of a few standard responses: 1) You mean like the Muppets? 2) Like Being John Malkovich? 3) Or, they put up their hands in a complicated tangle of fingers and say ‘like this?’ In China, the problem isn’t that much better. Everyone has heard of shadow puppetry, but very few have ever seen a live performance.

For numerous reasons, China wasn’t a large exporter of their cultural forms throughout the middle part of the 1900s. Even now, though China has ostensibly become increasingly open, the focus remains on economics, the environment and politics, which leaves little room to push the arts as ambassadors. Even if they had, most of their folk arts forms haven’t warranted enough attention to be exported, even when that has been the trend. There has been the odd article here, the occasional post or book there, but for the most part Chinese shadow puppetry still remains out of the general consciousness.

This lack of attention has seemed to stutter my research at times, making me divert my attention away from the work simply to publicize. But, over the years, this has actually helped hone the work, my goals and continues to reinvigorate what the true mission of my research should always be: sharing and engaging. Just when I think I’m tired of hitting the book, writing papers, conducting fieldwork – I am gifted a moment of true sharing and it does wonders to propel me forward.

Just this past spring, I’ve had the great honor to present a lecture/workshop at the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts (aka puppet-wonderland) and a demo/workshop at the incredible Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Both experiences, while acting as platforms for me to share Chinese shadow puppetry, were also vehicles towards sharpening my own understanding of how to share the work and what about it is relevant to a diverse North American public.

In Atlanta, the workshop participants were largely made of up adult educators and puppet professionals. The center’s educational outreach has also mastered the webinar format – allowing participants from as far away as Hawaii and Australia to participate as long as they have an internet connection! This was a first for me.

annie intro whole room The webinar audience is supported by a team of folks who video and moderate questions and information.  It’s fabulous if you’re stuck in the boondocks but want to join in puppet workshops.

They all delighted me with deeply considered questions about the history, but more interestingly, they wanted to know about the making process: how was the leather handled, what types of blades are used to cut the hide, what pigment options are out there, what are the joints and rods made out of, etc. This engineering minutia is the aspect of my work that I have shared the least. Hearing their curiosity confirmed that I’m not alone in my interests here.

In Virginia, the museum’s incredible art education and events staff and I developed a new set-up for large groups of festival goers to partake in both/either shadow puppetry or a make-your-own shadow puppet project.  With a family audience of around three thousand people in a matter of a few short hours, we knew we had to make both activities easily accessible and feasible, but also engaging and interactive.  Most successful were the new simplified child-proof Chinese-style shadow puppets I created that are sturdy enough for the rowdiest of kid rebels, yet beautiful enough to warrant enchantment. (A Do-It-Yourself Post will follow in a few weeks.)

PuppetpicA plastic, child-proof Chinese shadow male clown figure, ready for play.

I’ve toyed with plastic before and never loved the results, but these satisfied me. And, most importantly, the kids (and adults) fell in love with them.

VMFA1 Parents often ‘help’ their kids get acquainted behind the screen, but really end up enjoying it just as much as their half-pints.

VMFA2I love the natural curiosity to see what’s going on on both sides of the screen, even when you’re the one doing the puppeting.

We had kids who were there so long, I had to request they make room for others only to find them back again after a short pause. At moments in the chaos, I’d look around the mob of children at the screen or studiously making their shadow puppet and felt profoundly encouraged. There was a reason Chinese shadow puppetry survived and thrived for so long, and there is a reason it should continue – it’s just taking a little time to catch up to this crazy modern world. Proof is in the puppet.

Thanks for reading~

Princeton’s Gest Collection of Chinese Shadow Puppet Figures now Online!

For any of you who are interested in a thorough catalogue of shadow puppet types, I’ve got some good news for you! Princeton has just made their online catalogue of Chinese Shadow Puppets public and ready for your viewing! The Gest collection is of the Luanzhou 灤州 or Leting 樂亭 style, particular to China’s northeast region.  Thanks to Mary Hirsch and her work cataloguing and identifying the collection in 2006, the photos are well labeled and easily searchable.

This link will be permanently linked on the Links tab.

I can’t wait to dive in.

Thanks for reading~

Fake It Till You Make It

For any of you who have been following this blog for awhile, you already know the issue of machine-made puppets within the world of Chinese shadow puppetry.  Two years ago, I wrote specifically about their growing dominance of shadow puppet market and how this newer/faster/cheaper specimen is hard e to distinguish from the real thing, and more urgently, how it is rapidly depleting whatever market was left for handmade puppets.

I’ve stated this before and I’ll state it again: I have no problem with machine-made objects or mass-produced copies of an original.  What I do have a problem with is the exploitation of a public’s lack of expertise and knowledge in order to sell these mass-produced machine-made objects as something else; in this case, a hand-cut shadow puppet.

This machine-made issue continues to be a problem wherever shadow puppets are sold.  A fellow puppeteer recently told me he bought some puppets off eBay.  Without even asking him about it, I knew they had to be laser cut.  With a cursory search, I turned up a number of options labeling themselves as ‘Chinese Handicrafts’, even ‘Vintage Chinese Shadow Puppet’ although – at anywhere from $9.99-$29.99, I’d bet my shorts there is nothing handmade or vintage about the thing.  And they’re not.  Just hold your cursor over the photos for magnification and you’ll see the tell tale sign of the laser cut (covered in this earlier post).

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.19 PMFind it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.50 PM Find it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.17.33 PMFind it here.

And as crabby as that makes me, a newer, more complicated threat has been creeping in on the shadow puppet horizon as of late.  It’s a sneakier, smarter knock-off that’s been duping the best of them.  China is now beginning to create hand-cut faux antique pieces.

I first encountered these when I went to visit a dealer friend of mine at the legendary Pangjiayuan ‘Antique Market’ in Beijing during my Fulbright year (2011).  I’d met him earlier on the shadow puppet circuit, most memorably at the shadow puppet conference in Gansu province.  I contacted him to do a bit more research on the going prices for shadow puppets from different regions (as the market has jumped notably in the last 5 years or so) and he gave me much more of an education than I bargained for.

After we were done chatting about regional styles, going prices, and machine-made puppets (of which he had a few), he took a long pause and gave me a sideways glance.  “See that puppet up there?” he asked.  “The small Northeastern style male figure?” I asked.  He nodded.  “What do you think?” he asked coyly.  I walked over to the small Eastern Beijing style puppet hanging on the line and looked a little closer.  It was hand cut.  Ok.  I looked closer.  It had a dark patina on it, which usually indicates usage/wear/age as smoke lanterns and oil from human hands darkens the leather, but this one was different.  It looked slightly dusty and crusty, instead of well worn.  Upon even closer inspection I could see that there was no additional wear marks on any of the control rod connections or joints.  This really piqued my curiosity.

“What is this?” I asked.  Not wanted to make a claim I would be too embarrassed to retract.  Again, he paused for a long time.  I wasn’t sure he was going to tell me.  “They’re fake old puppets.”


We spent the next 30 minutes or so going over the details, the things to note, the sensorial features of faked antique puppets and at some point I threw up my hands.  It was hard to tell on some of them.  “How will I, can I, ever be sure?”  He reminded me that now, after seeing so many machine-made puppets, I could pick them out of a lineup.  Well, that’s what it would be like with fakes once I got more experience.  It’s simple connoisseurship.  I bought a few fake samples to take home with me, just in case.  I thanked him, deeply, and said my goodbyes.

Faux Antique

Faux Antique 2My fake-antique samples.  Look pretty good, don’t they?

Although it’s a few years back, I remember this day and this meeting with such clarity.  Probably because it gave me such a royal shakedown.  After a day or two of feeling defeated, I tried hard to revive my spirits.  I reminded myself that there wouldn’t be fake-antiqued puppets if there wasn’t money to be made from them.  China has been knocking off their antique jade and porcelain for decades, successfully selling their wares to local and foreign museums and collectors.  Shouldn’t I feel happy that shadow puppetry has achieved the honor of being forged?

Over the last few years, those wishy-washy feelings of forced optimism have faded completely.  The fake issue within the shadow puppet market of China needs to be controlled.  The best way to do this is to devise an easy method(s) to identify fakes and transmit this knowledge to those who need it.  In my initial research, I’ve secured a wonderful museum with a solid Chinese shadow puppet collection – who I believe has a few fakes – to allow some testing and further experimentation to be done.  With some cooperation from a few puppet cutters in China who have sourced a few possible chemicals used for the shadow puppet patinas and some connections in North America from museum archivists on how to go about devising a test, I believe we have a starting point.

Since my first encounter with a faked-antique, I’ve seen thousands more puppets in numerous collections and museums on both sides of the globe.  My connoisseurship is far above what it was 3 years ago.   Seeing the real and the fake, the old and the new old, has repeatedly set me on course.  We owe it to the incredible masters who have given their life to doing it the hard way, every day.

Thanks, so much, for reading~

Additional reading on museum fakes and China:

A Hebei Province museum closes when it’s discovered that most of its artifacts are fake:                

Forging and Art Market in China/NY Times:

Bloomberg weighs in on China’s growing global antique market and the number of fakes:                                              

The Shadow Woman has been Published!

Grant Hayter-Menzies’ amazing book The Shadow Woman has been published!

You can read my original account of the book and Grant’s work here - before it was published.

If you have any interest in Chinese shadow puppetry, it’s a truly incredible account of North America’s first practitioner and her unparalleled dedication to the form.  Order it from Amazon or request it from your local bookseller!

Congratulations Grant!

Chinese Shadow Puppetry in the History Books

IMG_4468A young scholar approaches two young ladies.

The silence on this blog for the last few months has not been for lack of content, on the contrary!  I’ve just begun my long road to a PhD and my focus, of course, is Chinese shadow puppetry.  Luckily, so far it has been nothing short of wonderful.  As one of my friends put it, “I think you’re the only person enjoying their first PhD semester in the entire world.”

My enjoyment is partially because the program I’m studying in is a flexible, practice-based interdisciplinary PhD, which is perfect for a self-guided student such as me.  I know what I need and they’re giving me the support to do just that.  Mostly, though, it’s because I love what I’m doing.  Spending days curled up on the couch, reading deeply about the form I care about so much is nothing short of a privilege.

In the last few months, I’ve finally had the chance to read through the written texts I’ve collected over the years about Chinese shadow puppetry and even find a few more.  I’ve spent time in rare books collections, made indulgent use of the inter-library loan system and absolutely exploited my newfound access to online journal databases.  It’s not easy to hunt this stuff down, almost as hard as tracking down a troupe in the countryside of China.

What’s struck me in the canon of texts is just how different the understanding of the form is depending on who’s writing about it.  This is true for anything – our position in the world so limiting our purview on everything we see – but strikingly true here.   In some ways, this was frustrating at first.  How was I supposed to make sense of it?  And in other ways this is exactly what is has to be and always will be.  A live performance art form is evolving in every iteration, every performance.  Multiply this by region, generation and circumstance and you do have a pluralistic performance art form that can be almost anything you choose to describe it as.

Whatever I end up writing or creating to communicate my understanding of shadow puppetry will fall into this category sooner or later:  there is no way to capture its full essence, existence or possibility in any form.  Thank goodness, or I’d be gearing up for a pretty boring five years.

Thanks for reading~


A short compiled Bibliography for anyone who is interested!

This list is certainly not exhaustive, but fairly complete of the easier to find texts in English.  Some are journal articles and some are books.  Most can be obtained from Jstor’s Online Journal Database, the inter-library loan system and your local library.

Chang, Lily. The lost roots of Chinese shadow theater: a comparison with the actors’ theater of China. Los Angeles, CA: Lecture at University of Southern California, 1982. Print.

Chen, Fan. Visions for the masses: Chinese shadow plays from Shaanxi and Shanxi. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 2004. Print.

Chen, Fan. Chinese shadow theatre history, popular religion, and women warriors. Montreal [Que.: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007. Print.

Chen, Fan Pen Li, and Bradford Clark. "A Survey of Puppetry in China (Summers 2008-2009)." Asian Theatre Journal 27.2 (2010): 333-365. Print.

Cohen, Alvin. "Documentation Relating to the Origins of the Chinese Shadow Puppet Theater  ." Asia Major 13.1 (2000): 83-108. Print.

Kronthal, Lisa. "Conservation of Chinese Shadow Figures: Investigations into their Manufacture, Storage, and Treatment." Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 40.1 (2001): 1-14. Print.

Laufer, Berthold. Oriental theatricals. Chicago: [Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago], 1923. Print.

Liu, Jilin. Chinese shadow puppet plays. Beijing: Morning Glory Publishers, 1988. Print.

March, Benjamin, and Paul McPharlin. Chinese shadow figure plays and their making,. Detroit: Inland Press, 1938. Print.

Menzies, Grant. Shadow woman: the extraordinary career of Pauline Benton. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. Print.

Pimpaneau, Jacques.  Shadow figures of Asia from the collection of Pauline Benton. Saint Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Museum of Art, 1970. Print.

Swiderski, Richard M. . “The Aesthetics of a Contemporary Chinese Shadow Theatre.” Asian Folklore Studies 43.2 (1984): 261-273. Print.

Wimsatt, Genevieve. Chinese shadow shows,. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936. Print.

Shadows in Heaven

Tonight, the world lost one of its greatest champions of Chinese shadow puppetry.  His collection of Shaanxi puppets, collected over his lifetime, is the single greatest collection of Shaanxi style shadow puppets in the world.  All because of his singular love and passion for the form.

You are missed, Yangfei.

Read his full story here.