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Kumarajiva – Paper Puppets Tell This Monk’s Story

  • 23
  • 06
  • 2016

Kumarajiva, a monk who was in charge of translating Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese, is getting his own play. He was an Indian Buddhist monk who lived between 344-409AD and is one of the most important figures in Chinese Buddhism.  The tale will be told with beautiful life-sized animal puppets made purely out of paper.

Wolf puppet

In May 2016, the play Kumarajiva was live thanks to the Foo Hai Buddhist Culture & Welfare Association, all in an effort to make the translator monk known to a wider audience.

Kumarajiva, the translator monk, played a key part in Buddhism. Thanks to his efforts and perfectly translated texts, Buddhism evolved in China from being a practice to being a high philosophy and religion.

Such is the respect towards this tale that all male actors will shave their heads instead of just wearing bald wigs. In addition, they will learn about the history of Kumarajiva and the Buddhist practices at Foo Hai Ch’an Monastery.

Timothy Wan, actor in the title role, is not a Buddhist but was highly moved by his character’s story. “He gave his life so all of China could learn. How else would Buddhism have spread across China?” he said.


So much effort is being put into this play that only Life Theater Award nominees are being invited to participate in the production, including Australian sculptor Anna Wili Highfield.

Goh Boon Tek, director of the play, particularly likes Anna’s style of creating the animals, life-sized and realistic, but a patchwork of cotton rag and paper suggesting, rather than detailing, each animal’s form.

Anna’s style resonates perfectly with Goh’s vision. “In Buddhism, form is not reality, so what we’re seeing on stage has multiple interpretations,” he said.

Anna says: “I see animals as representations of spirits or characteristics we can relate to. A horse has strength, integrity and beauty; a parrot is humorous, fun and colorful. That’s what’s so nice about the play. It incorporates animal symbolism and represents different stages in someone’s life.”

Bird puppet

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