Behind a large backlit screen, handmade tiger puppets dance with their shadows across the stage, acting out a wide range of stories from Chinese classics. This is what traditional shadow puppetry, a folk art that originated in China in the 20th Century, is all about. However, the attacks on traditional folk arts during the Cultural Revolution around 1966-76 sent the popularity of shadow puppet performances into a gradual decline.
Luckily, some artists in the United States managed to preserve the art form. A shared passion for puppetry brought two New York University graduates, Kuang-Yu Fong and Stephen Kaplin, together both professionally and romantically. They met in The Bread and Puppet Theater in New York City's Lower East Side in the early ‘80s and started performing together in 1984, before founding Chinese Theater Workshop in 1995. In 2001, the organization merged with The Gold Mountain Institute for Traditional Shadow Theater and became Chinese Theater Works.
Despite the decline of shadow puppetry in its country of origin, Fong and Kaplin have made it their mission to keep the art alive by sharing it with audiences in the United States. Over the past 28 years, Chinese Theater Works has produced more than 30 original productions, including Hao Bang Ah! Rabbit! (premiere 2023), Mulan: Holding Up Half the Sky (premiere 2014), Tiger Tales (premiere 2002), and Little Red Riding Hood: The Chinese Opera (premiere 2001).
“What we did is really unique and it took tremendous courage to continue working on it for decades,” says Fong. “I wanted the American audience to understand Chinese folk arts.”
Born and raised in Taiwan, the now 68-year-old Fong says that she came to the United States in 1983 for education and never left. What she learned at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan was mostly traditional theater, and she believed she could do more by merging modern arts with traditional folk art.
“When I was in Taiwan, I found that all the opera only talked about ancient tales. If an art form kept the same scene for years, it should be in the museum. But theater works do not belong only in museums,” says Fong. “That's why I came here to look for an opportunity to produce innovative theater works that have new values in this modern time.”
Chinese puppetry has a rich history that dates back thousands of years. It was a popular form of entertainment during the Tang Dynasty and reached its peak during the Qing Dynasty. Puppetry was not only used for entertainment but also as a means of passing down myths, legends, and historical events from one generation to another. However, during the Cultural Revolution, puppetry was seen as a representation of feudalism and superstition, and many puppeteers were persecuted or forced to abandon their craft.
“If an art form kept the same scene for years, it should be in the museum. But theater works do not belong only in museums. That's why I came here to look for an opportunity to produce innovative theater works that have new values in this modern time.”
With limited resources, Kaplin and Fong faced numerous challenges in their early years. They scoured Chinese markets, antique shops, and flea markets to find authentic puppets and materials. They also sought out surviving puppet masters in China and convinced them to share their knowledge and skills. Through their perseverance and dedication, they managed to bring traditional Chinese puppetry to American audiences, performing in theaters, museums, and cultural festivals across the country. According to Fong, the oldest puppet in use in today’s performances dates back to the 1930s.
Recently, the duo launched a new production called Tiger of Zhao, based on a story found in Pu Song Ling’s 17th-century classic collection of supernatural stories. The story talks about how a tiger who killed an elderly woman’s son was tracked down by the court and ended up symbolically replacing her son. This impactful narrative effectively portrays pertinent moral concepts such as rectifying historical errors, remedying injustices, and transcending feelings of fear and animosity.
Kaplin, 66, says that he wishes the audience can take away the universal values presented in this show. “Because I'm Jewish, we've always been trying to square Chinese culture with Jewish culture in some ways in our shows,” he says. “In this story, the forgiveness and reconciliation parts are very Jewish, but the deeper ethical messages that come out of our theater works can be understood by the global audience.”
Fong and Kaplin’s devotion to reviving shadow puppetry has truly transcended cultural borders, sparking interest in this art form's modern adaptation in U.S. classrooms. Recognizing the potential of shadow puppetry as a valuable educational tool, Chinese Theater Works has been actively involved in bringing this art form into American classrooms. They have collaborated with educators and schools to integrate shadow puppetry into the curriculum, particularly for teaching foreign languages.
Earlier this year, New York City required instruction in AA+PI history for grades K-12. In light of this mandate, shadow puppetry became an essential tool for educators to teach about the rich cultural heritage of AA+PIs. By incorporating shadow puppetry into their lessons, teachers found a fun and interactive way to engage students and foster a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
"My goal with these activities is not just to teach, but also to nurture the heart and the spirit of each child, respecting their individuality while appreciating our collective diversity."
Yibei Li, a teacher from West Montessori School, attended a workshop hosted by Chinese Theater Works in 2018, where she refined her skills in puppet making. Since then, she focused on designing hands-on activities for the cultural shelf in her Montessori classroom, enabling children to independently create hand puppets. She says that this has not only fostered a love for puppetry in her students but also provided them with the opportunity to learn about diverse cultures.
“Shadow puppetry has provided a colorful and engaging avenue for our AA+PI students to connect with their roots,” says Li. “I designed an activity called ‘Self-Portrait Puppetry,’ involving children observing their own reflections and creating hand puppets that mirror their unique images. My goal with these activities is not just to teach, but also to nurture the heart and the spirit of each child, respecting their individuality while appreciating our collective diversity.”
In the past few years, more theater organizations stepped up and produced works preserving Chinese culture. Presented by the Kunqu Society of New York (1988) and produced by Dongshin Chang and Yining Cao, Two Takes: The Peony Pavilion premiered at Frederick Loewe Theater last week, showcasing the classic masterpiece of Chinese Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion (1598) in a new light. “By incorporating both traditional and modern takes in this classic work, we are drawing inspirations from the contemporary arts and hoping it can have a greater impact on young audiences in the U.S.,” the producers say.
“I hope we can see more of these shows shine in major theaters…if we are still alive,” says Kaplin.
Today, Fong and Kaplin are also working to present traditional theater arts in a more emergent way. Currently, Fong and Kaplin are working on relaunching a new version of Day Jobs, Opera Dreams, unveiling the stories of immigrant Peking Opera performers’ journeys in the United States. Through a fusion of Peking Opera, oral history storytelling, and contemporary theatrical techniques, the production delves into the intricate tapestry of cultural migration that transcends geographical and linguistic frontiers.
Reflecting on the last 20 years, Kaplin says, “It's our job to pass on this art form to more people and benefit them in various ways. I hope someone else comes along and carries it further, so we can retire.”
Published on August 22, 2023
Words by Xintian Wang
Xintian Tina Wang is a bilingual journalist covering cultural stereotypes and innovations, including gender and sexuality, arts, business, and technology. Her recent work appears in TIME, ARTNews, Huffpost, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Daily Beast, Inc. Magazine etc. She is also the director of events for the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) New York Chapter. As a journalist of color and a visual storyteller, she is constantly speaking for cultural minority groups whose voices are buried in mainstream discourses. Her documentary Size 22 won the "Best Short Documentary" at the Boston Short Film Festival and an "Audience Award" at the New England Film Festival. Her photography work is featured in TIME, HuffPost, The Sunday Times, Air Mail, etc. Visit her website at www.xintianwang.net.