Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

How to Make Chinese Shadow Puppets

Photo Credit: Ernie Reyes
Shadow puppets are said to have originated in China, 2000 years ago. Until recently, they were one of the most popular and widespread folk arts in China. To learn more about their history and how they are made, read our earlier post here.

Making Chinese Shadow Puppets

You will need:
  • Printable template (see options below)
  • White cardstock or vellum/translucent paper (I don't recommend using regular paper as it will be a little too flimsy to use)
  • Crayons, markers or paint to decorate your puppets - if using vellum, use permanent markers
  • 2-3 rods per puppet - you can use chopsticks, bamboo skewers, popsicle sticks or pencils
  • Brass fasteners (brads)
  • Awl (optional)
  • Masking tape

Printable templates

I scoured the internet and here is what I found:

Chinese Puppetry offers templates for 3 full body puppets, or two large heads. There are even markings for where the rods should be attached. 

British Museum offers a template for a dragon, a man, and a woman. The dragon and man would be great for younger kids to color or decorate since they have no intricate designs included. 

Asian Art Museum offers templates for the main characters joining the Monkey King in his adventures (from Ming novel Journey to the West) - the Monkey King, Pigsy (you need to print twice to get both legs and arms), Xuanzang (the monk, who for some reason has no legs in this template), Sandy (the monks loyal follower who used to be a sea monster) and the monks horse. These have no markings as to where the joints should attach, however there are images of the real puppets that help.

Boston Children's Museum offers a template of the Monkey King - this one is requires the use of an exacto knife to cut out the dark markings - creating a puppet similar to traditional ones with all the cut out openings. I made this one, but would not have had Elle (11) try to cut these pieces out with a blade.

To learn about the beloved hero and trickster, Sun Wukong - The Monkey King, read our earlier post here.

Making a cardstock puppet

Print the desired template on white cardstock. Color in or decorate the template - using bright colors will look great during the show. From what I've seen, the faces of people are usually kept white. Cut out the pieces and join them together with brass fasteners (see below). Attach rods (see below).

Making a vellum puppet

Stiff, printable translucent paper makes for puppets that look more like the Chinese shadow puppets. I thought I had some in our office supplies, but though what I have looks great (translucent, a bit frosted), it is as thin as regular paper. Not to be deterred, I made due by gluing two pieces together.

Print desired template on translucent paper. Color in and decorate with permanent markers. In order to get the carved look of the real puppets, we left blank spaces, rather than cutting them out, though you could do that too. Where do you draw the blank spaces? For the dragon, we just drew spaces following the curves. (Blue dragon, pictured above) For the lady, we used the lines that were already designed, and closed them in. Does that make sense? Have fun with it!  

If you have to glue two pieces of paper together to get the strength, here's what you do: once the design is colored, turn it over and apply clear drying glue on the back of the puppets, and try not to put glue on the spaces left blank/white. Put a second sheet of translucent paper over the glue covered design. Leave to dry under a book or something heavy to stop it from curling. Then cut out your pieces. Join with brass fasteners (see below) and attach rods (see below).

Attach with brass fasteners

To attach with the fasteners, it helps to make a hole where you want it first. Using a hold punch makes a hole that is too big. I was just slowly pricking the fastener through the paper, which works but takes some patience. Then Hubby brought over an awl, and that worked perfectly! You could also use the tip of scissors.

If there is no indication as to where to attach your pieces, here are a few tips:

Click on image to get a better view
When the arm comes in two pieces, the shoulder is generally narrower than the elbow section. The elbow section is then attached to the lower arm. (see fig. A)

Play with the arms to see whether you want to attach them to the front or back of the puppet. If the puppet only comes with one arm, the arm should be attached on the front of the torso. When it has two arms, it works well when one arm is attached to the front, and the other behind. Base it on the direction the puppet is facing - the arm joined on that side should be attached behind. (see fig. B)

When the torso comes in two pieces, use just one fastener to join them. The top part of the torso can be behind or in front of the bottom part, try them both to see your preference. (see fig. C)

Each leg gets its own fastener and should be attached behind the torso - if torso comes in two parts, legs are attached to bottom part of torso.

Making and attaching rods

I recently saw the best trick for this. On our previous shadow puppets, we would just tape/glue a stick to the back, but you don't get the best motion. Here's a way that gives you a similar effect to professional shadow puppets. All you need are rods and masking tape. We used bamboo skewers for our rods. (We should have used the long bamboo skewers.)

Cut out two pieces of masking tape for each rod: one three inches long, and the other one inch long. You may want to cut them lengthwise as well if they are too wide to fit on the back of your puppet. 

Tape the long piece of tape to your rod one inch down. Then fold over. There should be an inch or so of tape over the rod. This extra flap is what becomes attached to the back of the puppet with the smaller piece of tape. 

Start by attaching two rods on each puppet: one on the torso and the other on one arm. Once you get the hang of them, add a third rod, either on an arm or leg to increase motion.

Your puppet is ready to star in its own production!

Our puppet theater is a piece of wax paper taped on the inside of an opening cut from corrugated cardboard. I would recommend a "theater" made with paper (freezer paper, wax paper, tracing paper) rather than a white fabric in order to get to see the colorful puppets. A lamp (minus the lampshade) was placed behind them.

The puppets made from translucent paper showed up better in the screen. And I think if we had used longer bamboo skewers, we would see less hand shadows.
Puppet on the left was done with cardstock, puppet on the right in translucent paper
They pulled out our classic black shadow puppets from Greek mythology - the Monkey King did indeed defeat Cerberus.

The girls had a great time putting on shows, that got progressively sillier :)

Creepy, right?
Seriously, they had so much fun. I vowed to take these out more often. 

If you'd like to make more shadow puppets, Coolest Family on the Block has a great round up of many templates and tutorials found online for shadow puppets and theaters. 

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:
You can find more creative and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:
Entertaining & Educational, Best for Future; Afterschool Blog Hop; Sun Scholars

Highhill Homeschool

Best4Future Wednesdays

For the Kids Fridays at SunScholars.com


  1. It's not until I read your posts that I realise how much iconic culture comes from China! You've explained this really clearly, thank you - one day we shall give it a try!

    1. Thank you Lucinda - I hope the instructions make sense, sometimes I don't realize how much one would have to read my mind to understand what I'm trying to say! I didn't realize as well how much the Chinese culture has contributed until doing this research - it has been so interesting!

  2. The instructions were great! And the puppets were amazing, truly fantastic. Sigh, we missed so much in China and yet I was under the misapprehension I had covered it quite thoroughly!
    Note to self - wait until Marie has studied something and THEN tackle it!!

    1. lol - you had covered China quite thoroughly - I just happen to eat, breathe and dream China these days - writing this blog has sure kept me focused! I miss novels... :)

  3. What a cool activity! I love the picture at the end. It reminds me of those puzzles where two images can be seen in one picture depending on how it's viewed.

    1. Thank you Julie, I prefer your perspective of the last picture - with their tongues sticking out like that, it felt a little demonic to me!

  4. What a great post about Chinese Shadow Puppets!! I love it so much and I save it into my favorites. Who knows, maybe I will use it as part of teaching materials on Chinese culture in my Chinese class.

    Thank you so much for linking up with Best4Future Wednesday Link Party. Love to see you the first Wed in December!

  5. What fun! These are the best instructions for them I have ever seen.

    1. Thanks Phyllis - I was worried the instructions were more on the long and drawn out side of things...

  6. Amazing as always! I look forward to doing these more intricate crafts when my kids are older. Love the silliness at the end, too :) Thanks for sharing at the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop!

  7. These puppets are gorgeous! I featured your post on Creative Kids Cultural Blog Hop: http://toddlefast.blogspot.com/2013/12/creative-kids-cultural-blog-hop-11.html. Can't wait to see what you share this month!

  8. EPIC! I want to do. I will.


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