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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Annie Rollins, Humanities

Immaterial Remains: the (im)possibilities of preserving China's shadow puppet tradition

Date & time
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
9 a.m. – 12 p.m.

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Mary Appezzato


J.W. McConnell Building
1400 De Maisonneuve W.
Room LB 362

Wheel chair accessible


When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


Chinese shadow puppetry is a performance form that dates back over 1500 years ago. As the most wide-spread puppet form in China, shadow puppetry lineages became literal archives of their community's stories with just a few practitioners from each generation charged with retaining the cumulative repository of shared experiences. As modern China and increasingly globalizing forces puts pressure on the circumstances that cultivated this long tradition of shadow puppetry, questions of continuance have been on the minds of the practitioners and their audiences since the early 1900s. If the transmission of shadow puppetry ends, unable to engage apprentices to inherit or find audiences to receive, where will those thousands of years of stories and their ghostly lineage go? This thesis utilizes an apprenticeship research method to follow two main lines of inquiry: (1) what are the particular ways in which Chinese shadow puppetry, a traditional vernacular puppetry form, is resistant to current methods of preservation (2) how can new preservation theories and practices be approached to better support traditional vernacular puppet forms? Ancillary to this, can creative artists outside the lineage of Chinese shadow puppetry contribute to this endeavor?

The research shows that while current methods for preservation and safeguarding intangible cultural forms, especially puppetry, are enacting some change, the results are mixed and often detrimental to the form they are designed to protect. The goal for this dissertation is to catalyze a re-examination of safeguarding policies and current theories on the (im)possibilities of preserving traditional vernacular puppetry forms in order to posit a new approach to safeguarding that prioritizes (1) apprenticeship, (2) practitioner-driven creativity and (3) performance as the central mode of dissemination. Considering these three tenets is not intended to replace the roster of safeguarding methods currently in place, but adds to them to include necessary elements that have so far not been adequately considered. This thesis hopes to shift the current focus of preservation methods, which prioritizes objects and products, back unto practitioners as central to any method of preservation.

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