Puppets on the Move: China and the Silk Road

How was Chinese culture spread along the Silk Road, and what impact did cultural diffusion have on China?


Key Staff

Social Studies teacher, with opportunities to collaborate with the visual and performing arts teachers.

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques, Producing, Executing and Performing
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Creative Thinking: Communication and Collaboration


This lesson is part of the unit: 'Teaching Shadow Puppetry'

Through map-making, research, and class discussions, students will gain an understanding of the dynamics of trade in China along the Silk Road and the role of trade in urbanization throughout the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties. The lesson will culminate in student-produced and student-created shadow puppet performances that demonstrate students’ understanding of Chinese culture during the days of the Silk Road and of the connection between trade and urbanization.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Create maps of the Silk Road
  • Discuss and examine trade dynamics along the Silk Road, including physical hardships and cultural exchanges
  • Read and discuss the main tenets of Buddhism and the role of Xuanzang in spreading the religion
  • Discuss the role of folktales in understanding and communicating aspects of culture
  • Demonstrate understanding of urbanization and trade in Chinese history during the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties
  • Conduct online research to inform shadow puppet plays
  • Write, direct, and perform short shadow puppet plays
  • Create shadow puppets

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Brainstorming
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Research
  • Multimedia Instruction

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Speakers
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Projector
Required Plugins
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should have a familiarity with:

  • Cultural diffusion
  • The Silk Road
  • Chinese history

Teachers may want to review some of the following before beginning the lesson.


  • Blackham, Olive. Shadow Puppets. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.
  • Bryant, Jill, and Catherine Heard. Making Shadow Puppets. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2002.


Prior Student Knowledge

Students should have a familiarity with:

  • Cultural diffusion
  • Silk Road
  • Chinese history
  • Maps and keys

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab


  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


Test Internet connection
Make necessary photocopies

Accessibility Notes

Note: This lesson plan refers to many images, video, and resources available online. You may wish to project images and video onto a screen or schedule time in a computer lab.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Begin with a discussion of the concept of trade. Remind students that although we now use money to acquire goods we want, people have not always done so. In ancient times, people bartered (or traded goods and services for other goods and services) to obtain what they wanted. During the Han Dynasty in China (206 BCE-220 AD), silk and grain were used to pay taxes.

2. Ask students if they have ever bartered - perhaps they traded a couple CDs for a video game or convinced a sibling to do their chores in exchange for an important favor.

3. Ask students to provide examples of what makes a good trade. You may wish to give examples:

  • What is a good trade for an iPod? A pair of shoes? A candy bar?
  • Ask students how they think they would trade differently if, for example, their parent or guardian worked for a computer company and they had access to countless iPods. Would they value the iPod less?
  • Or what if you know that a friend's family owns a candy store - what kind of trade would you expect from this friend that would be different from another friend? How would you know what to offer this friend in exchange?

4. Discuss how objects are valued more when they are not easy to find (i.e., photographs autographed by celebrities, one-of-a-kind art, etc.). Discuss the fact that trade works best when each trading party owns something considered very valuable to the other party.

Build Knowledge

1. Introduce students to the Silk Road, the series of trade routes stretching across Eurasia. You may wish to have students read National Geographic’s History: The Silk Road and/or ChinaCulture.org's Silk Road for further information.

2. Inform the class that many goods were exchanged along these routes, including fruit, nuts, paper, horses, medicine, copper, glass, gunpowder, and - of course - silk. The process of silk production had been a secret in China for over 2,000 years and people in other countries were eager to obtain the light fabric.

3. Pass out a map of the Silk Road to your students. (For a good map, see The Silk Road Foundation's Marco Polo map.)

4. Explain that the journey was incredibly difficult due to weather, robbers, the diversity of geography and the thousands of miles merchants had to travel. Camels proved vital to the merchants because they are able to travel long distances without water and enabled merchants to cross the arid Teklamakan Desert.

5. Allow students time to research the geographic regions along and around the Silk Road by viewing physical maps on National Geographic's Web site or in classroom atlases. Direct students to use colored pencils, crayons, or markers to fill in areas of their maps with symbols that represent that area's geography (i.e., triangles for mountains, camels for desert areas, etc.). Tell students to create a key on the bottom of their maps explaining what the symbols mean. If students are unfamiliar with the definition of a map key, or map-making in general, see the ARTSEDGE lesson Learning about Maps and Colors for an introduction to map-making.

6. Discuss with students why traders risked their lives for particular goods, and ask students why they think goods became more valuable as they moved farther away from their city of origin.

7. Distribute the Silk Road Timeline worksheet located within the Resource Carousel. Tell students to create a timeline comparing important historical events that happened around the world while they study events in China. This timeline will ground the students in a broader historical context as they study the Silk Road and will serve as a journal on which they can jot down notes as they learn about significant events in this lesson plan.

8. Explain to students the main tenets of Buddhism. Two good resources are the "Religion and Ethics" site of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and "The Basics of Buddhism" on PBS's Thailand: the Jewel of the Orient.

9. Inform students that Xuanzang is an icon in Chinese culture. After Xuanznang's journey, Buddhism became more widespread and understood. His journey has been retold in stories, plays, and films. One of the most famous texts based on Xuanzang's journey is a 16th century novel titled Journey to the West, in which Xuanzang travels with a character called The Monkey King.

10. Show students Xuanzang's route on The Silk Road Foundation's map, The Travels of Xuanzang. Tell students to mark Xuanzang's route onto their own Silk Road Maps.


1. Explain to students that Chinese tales and legends, in general, are often retold in shadow puppet theater. Show students video clips of shadow puppet performances of folktales on the ARTSEDGE Web site Playing with Shadows: An Introduction to Shadow Puppetry (click on "Video Playlist" in the upper right-hand corner).

2. Discuss with students why they think some stories are timeless.

  • What is appealing to people from a particular culture about hearing a story about an ancient legend from their own culture?
  • Would it be different if the audience was not watching a play about a legend from their own culture?
  • What can they learn about daily life in China from watching the shadow puppet show?
  • Can they speculate what was valued in ancient Chinese culture by watching a folktale (i.e., embedded morals and values)?

3. Discuss with the class the characteristics of certain plots and characters that are entertaining no matter what the background of the audience member.

4. Watch the video, "Keeping History Alive: Shaanxi Folk Arts Theater," on Playing with Shadows and hear how puppeteer Zhao Yu Ming brings to life traditional Chinese folktales.

5. Inform students that the art of shadow puppetry also traveled along trade routes through the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Western Europe. Explore with students the "Background" section of the ARTSEDGE site Playing with Shadows. Note the grieving emperor mentioned in the section, "An Ancient Art". This Emperor, Wudi, ruled China during the Han Dynasty from 141-86 BCE. Scholars still debate whether shadow puppetry theatre originated in China or India. Discuss with students why this remains a mystery (i.e., people relied on the oral tradition to transmit historical information before paper and printing was widespread, and cultures mixed so much on the Silk Road over time that it is difficult to trace what came first).

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 AD)

6. Explain to students that, although the Silk Road reached its height during the Tang Dynasty, the Han Dynasty played a major role in the development of the Silk Road in the east. (The expansion of Rome can be credited in the west.) Under Wudi's rule, China was able to conquer regions in Central Asia and subsequently gain control of trade routes to the north and south of the Teklamakan Desert. Explain to students that one of the largest cities in the world during this time was the capital of western Han (now Chang'an in present-day Shaanxi Province), where two huge markets were located. Inform students that business opportunities and industrial development leads to the growth of cities. Ask students why they think this is true.

7. Explain to students that poetry and philosophy flourished during the Han Dynasty. Read more about the Han Dynasty on The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Timeline of Art History.

8. Discuss with students why cultural activities and entertainment could result from the growth of cities.

9. To spark conversation, ask students the following:

  • Are they more likely to watch movies on the weekend or a weeknight?
  • Do they have more free time on the weekends?
  • Discuss with students why they think there are more cultural activities in Los Angeles and New York than in rural areas.
  • What would the increase in business opportunities in a city have to do with an increase in cultural activities (i.e., more jobs leads to more income and more leisure time and the ability to pay for entertainment)?

The Song Dynasty (960 AD-1279 AD)

10. Inform students that, although culture flourished in China during the Han Dynasty, it was during the Song Dynasty when China reached one of its highest point in its history—in terms of economic growth, art, culture, and urbanization. Have students explore Columbia University's Web site, The Song Dynasty in China.

11. Discuss the connection between urbanization, trade, and the commercialization of Chinese culture. For example, merchants who were traveling wanted to eat food from their home regions, and wealthy people in urban centers wanted to try new foods. A new culture in urban locations involved eating out in restaurants.

12. Point out that dramatic arts, including the first shadow shows, also burgeoned during the Song Dynasty, partly because literacy increased as a result of the widespread use of printing during this time. For more information on this topic, see the "intellectual life" section of Columbia University’s The Song Dynasty in China site.

13. Have students explore the ARTSEDGE site, Playing with Shadows. As the "Background" section of the site points out, writings provided evidence of the first shows using shadows during China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Popular across all social classes, these shows were performed at court, in homes, along roadsides, and between military battles.


1. Tell students that they will write their own shadow puppet show that depicts some aspect of Chinese history that they’ve learned.

2. Break up students into groups of four. You may wish to give them the following topics to choose from:

  • Xuanzang Travels the Silk Road
  • Wudi’s Rule During the Han Dynasty
  • A Silk Merchant’s Journey
  • A Printer’s Customers
  • A Master Shadow Puppeteer in the Song Era

3. Distribute the Shadow Puppet Show worksheet located within the Resource Carousel. Each student in the group of four should pick one of the following roles: puppet maker, script writer, prop maker, and set maker. While everyone should work as a team and can collaborate on ideas, each person will be responsible for completing their own assignment. Each student must also be involved in staging the play and should decide who will manipulate which puppets, who will provide the voice, etc. Tell students that the play should be between 5-10 minutes long.

4. Inform each group that they must conduct additional research so that they can incorporate at least five new facts in their play that will teach the class something new about their topic. Point students to the following online resources:

5. Provide students with materials to construct their own shadow puppets. Tell students to read the "Behind the Shadows" section of Playing with Shadows for instructions on how to make shadow puppets and for tips on performing the play. Before students work with their actual puppets, have them practice manipulating puppets online in the "Puppet Studio" in Playing with Shadows. You may wish to give students class time to work on their shadow plays and practice working with their puppets. You may also wish to show students the book Making Shadow Puppets by Jill Bryant and Catherine Heard (see Sources section of this lesson plan for bibliographic information).

6. Have each group perform their shadow plays for the rest of the class. Tell students that, while watching each of their classmates’ plays, they should write down at least three new facts they learned on the accompanying handout, Shadow Puppet Show Fact Gathering Worksheet located within the Resource Carousel.


1. Assess students’ learning based on the following criteria:

  • Do the shadow plays display an understanding of the topic?
  • Do the shadow plays reveal evidence of additional research?
  • Is there evidence of effort in the creation and production of the shadow puppets and performance?
  • Did each student write at least three facts they learned from each play?

2. You may also use the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

Theresa Sotto
Original Writer

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