Lesson 11: Performing Knowledge: Education as Entertainment: Asian Puppetry, Burma

Summary and Objectives. Students explore Burmese puppetry and as they do so they will make puppets and create and perform puppet plays. Their studies extend to Burmese poetry traditions and to Jataka Tales, around which much of the puppet theater in Burma is based. Students will

  • Experiment with the art of puppetry as they write scripts, create puppets, and perform plays of their own making.
  • Extend their exploration of Burmese arts by creating poetry in the style of Burmese climbing rhymes.
  • Analyze the literary structure of Jataka tales, retell selected tales, and create stories inspired by the tradition.


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Lesson 11: Asian Puppetry Lesson Plan (PDF, 750 KB)

Background Information

Background Information

Before film and television, puppetry was one of the most important entertainments throughout Asia. It also served as a major form of public education. In societies where oral traditions were as important as written literature, each generation learned of the beginning of the world and its beings, and understood the great moral tales as they engaged with puppetry performances. This particular lesson focuses on puppets from Burma (Myanmar) and puppetry traditions from other areas will be featured in subsequent lessons.

In Burma, puppetry performances have long been more highly valued than plays with human actors, for humans are considered too impure to perform sacred stories. The plays, in which string puppets are featured, are based primarily on the Buddhist Jataka stories, moral tales concerning the previous lives of the Buddha. The puppet master has a great deal of latitude, however, and may add subjects of his own choosing, often through the introduction of regional characters that are not found in the classical epics.

Puppetry became popular under Burmese King Bodawpaya (1782–1819) who appointed a special minister to encourage and supervise the theater. Performances were divided into two acts. The first act dramatized the beginning of the world and the second act dealt with human events. After the first world was destroyed by fire and the second by flood, the third world was created and inhabited by spirits whose priestess danced, made offerings, and asked for blessings. These puppets were followed by animals, then ogres, and then by the Zawgyi, a magician and alchemist who leaped over the backdrop to perform tricks. These characters all appeared before the next step in the evolution of the world, the founding of the dynasties with its procession of the king and his court. As the king discussed a particular problem within his court he ushered in the second act of the play in which human events were considered.

The Burmese puppet featured in this lesson is that of a princess (Fig. 2.8). Other puppets—an ogre, horse, Zawgyi (magician) and king can be researched online—keywords: Jataka Burmese puppets.)


About the Artist

The princess puppet illustrated here was made by the master puppet maker U Thun Ye, a member of at least the third generation of his family to make and perform puppets. He lived in Rangoon (Yangon) where he performed frequently until the 1960s.

Suggested Activities

1. The World on a String, on a Rod, in Your Hand, or as Shadows on a Screen

In Asia, puppet theater is primarily based on religious traditions—Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic—and in most regions they are one of four types: hand, rod, shadow, and string. Burmese puppeteers tell their stories with string puppets, usually made of wood and measuring about thirty to thirty-six inches. Although some puppets can be manipulated with as few as one, two, or three strings, it takes up to sixty strings to control the complex and subtle movements of the most complicated figures.

Activity. At http://www.mandalaymarionettes.com (10/09) Burmese puppet production is detailed, including step-by-step illustrations of the carving and construction of a typical puppet. You can download and duplicate the pictures for a variety of activities. Cut out the individual pictures, remove the numbers, and have students put them in order to show the progression of steps. After putting the pictures in order, the students can write an explanatory essay to describe the process to parents or friends. If you have available puppets, you can use a related article on the above website to learn how to use single, double, or triple stringing methods to manipulate the puppets.

Activity. Simple versions of string puppets can be made of heavy stock paper or tagboard with separate limbs attached to the body by connections of paper fasteners or string (through holes punched at the joints). Attach wires or strings (about twelve inches long) to the parts. For the youngest student one string attached to the head will enable him or her to “dance” the puppet. The head of a puppet may be made of papier mâché, carved wood, or found objects, and strings may be attached to the limbs. When multiple strings are used they are connected at the top to a wooden control which is held horizontally and which the operator raises, lowers, twists, and turns to make the puppet move more naturally. Many books and websites offer directions to construct the other types of puppets listed above.


2. The Puppeteer and the World in Microcosm

Authors have likened Asian puppeteers to life-giving deities who create figures and bring them to life.

Activity. Before they design or put their puppets to work, puppet-makers determine the characteristics of their creations. Students can select the attributes they would give the princess puppet shown here and then discuss and compare their choices. If they are going to produce a puppet show themselves, as above, consider the attributes of puppets they will use.

Activity. As they manipulate puppets, people indirectly communicate with each other. How is this so? In what other circumstances, and how, can they indirectly make known their thoughts and desires? In what circumstances might students want to do so or have done so? Students also can project their feelings about being behind the scene as they affect events, vs. being seen and acknowledged for their actions. A discussion of their feelings about each should follow.


3. Climbing Rhymes

Burma’s literary traditions include many forms of poetry, some characterized by a repeated sequence of three lines, each consisting of four syllables. The Burmese language is mainly monosyllabic, with each syllable having an independent meaning; therefore each syllable is the equivalent of one word. The rhyming scheme of a climbing rhyme appears not at the end of the lines, but appears within the four-word lines. The same rhyme appears in the fourth word of line one, the third word of line two, and the second word of line three. It is called a 4-3-2 scheme (likening it to a staircase, hence the name, climbing rhyme). The pattern thus is (with x the rhyming word and a dash for the rest of the words).

_ _ _ X
_ _ X _
_ X _ _

The last line of a poem often ends with a longer line of unlimited length. Poems often extend beyond the three lines, and when they do, the last word of the third line determines the new series of rhymes. So the pattern is:

_ _ _ X
_ _ X _
_ X _ Y
_ _ Y _
_ Y _ _
etc. for any number of lines


“The Puppeteer”

He manipulates the strings
Making figures sing while
They swing into action
With great satisfaction and
My reaction is such
That it touches me
So much that I
Laugh and cry and
I try to think of what it would be like to have that huge amount of power.

A second poem is based on the Jataka tale, “When Buddha Was King of the Monkeys,” that is inclded as a handout in this lesson. The rhyming words are underlined.

“A Warning for Monkeys about Mangoes”
Fruit of mango trees—
Treats that monkeys eat
Oh please be sure
That no premature fruit
Falls. Your fate would
Be doomed should fruit
So good fall, float
Downstream into remote territory
And noted by men
Become favored when tasted
And then men would destroy you so they could
keep for themselves all the delicious
fruit from this wonderful mango tree.

4. Jataka Tales

The Jataka Tales, basis for most of Burmese puppet theater, is a collection of over five hundred stories about the previous lives of the Buddha, and is told to instill proper moral conduct and values in the listeners. A child is discouraged from selfishness and encouraged to be a good friend, and people of all ages learn lessons of peace, generosity and faithfulness. Traditionally the stories were expressed orally in storytelling and puppet performances. The plays were divided into two acts, the first act dramatizing the beginning of the world and introducing subsequent inhabitants (fig. 2.8): animals, ogres, and the folk magician, Zawgyi. In the second act human characters played the main roles as peasants, clowns, and royalty. The Jataka tales are mainly associated with Theravada Buddhism, today practiced primarily in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar).

Activity. Give students opportunities to read a variety of Jataka stories. Some translations are more literal than others; many are simplified for young readers. There are well-illustrated books (see bibliography) and fairly complete representations online (keyword: Jataka). Students should then compare Jataka tales to other forms of oral literature. Be sure to include Aesop’s Fables, a genre often compared with Jataka tales. Concentrate, for comparisons, on the characters (who may take the form of animals, imagined creatures, or real people), situations, settings, narrative style, and the inclusion of a moral. Students should offer definitions of a fable, find similarities and differences among examples they find, and look for versions that show how such stories can change over time. It may be suitable for students to use these stories as an introduction to the study of a region of the world, a country, a belief system, or a group.

Activity. Select one or more of the tales to be read by small groups of students (about three to a group). After reading, the groups should discuss the selected story, considering characters, plot, and any lessons they learned. Follow this discussion with individual students retelling the story and analyzing and comparing their individual, newly told versions. Did students vary in their points of concentration—did they concentrate more or less on certain aspects or details? Do they agree on facets that must be retained if the story tells a lesson to be learned? What conclusion do they come to as to how tales evolve? How more or less likely is a story to change if it is orally transmitted rather that put to paper?

Activity. Both monks and lay people used the lessons in Jataka stories to teach desired precepts. Wholesome qualities were promoted and these could be categorized into such general themes as friendship, respect for elders, truthfulness, gratitude, association with good people, perseverance, good manners, determination, generosity, nonviolence, and caring for the environment. Have students adapt a traditional Jataka story to make it current or relevant to their lives or to current events in the country, city, or school, with special attention paid to lessons and morals learned.

Activity. The story featured in Handout WHEN BUDDHA WAS KING OF THE MONKEYS is based on a Jataka tale. You can duplicate the story for students to read or teachers of younger children may read it to them. Any of the activities addressed in this lesson can be used with this simplified retelling.

Activity. Using a story as the basis of a puppet show, let students make the puppets, compose the dialogue, and add scenery. Early performances of Jataka tales had a backdrop of jungle scenery on one side of the stage where the first act puppets (primarily animals) appeared, and royal insignia and decorations on the other side where court scenes were enacted. The characters in Jataka tales often include ogres and other imaginary creatures. Students may choose to design a fantasy-based puppet as a drawing, as a three-dimensional figure, or as a character in their play.

Useful Readings

Altman, Patricia
1976 Asian Puppets: Wall of the World. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Ernst, Judith
1995 The Golden Goose King. Chapel Hill: Parvardigar Press. *

Hodges, Margaret
1994 Hidden in Sand. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. *

Lee, Jeanne M.
1999 I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. *

Martin, Rafe
1997 The Monkey Bridge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. *
1998 The Brave Little Parrot. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. *

Sura, Arya
1997 The Marvelous Companion: Life Stories of the Buddha. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.
1998 Once the Buddha Was a Monkey. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Thornhill, Jan
2002 The Rumor: A Jataka Tale from India. Toronto: Maple Tree Press, Inc.


*Children’s books

Notes to the Teacher

This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the second section of the exhibition called Art and Knowledge. In this gallery works are introduced that served to communicate knowledge and a sense of history. See “Unit Two—Art and Knowledge” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.

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