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Toy Theatres

For her residency at Pollock’s Toy Museum Vaishali Prazmari is making a toy theatre for the 1001 Nights. She focuses in particular on Pollocks’ amazing historic collections of toy theatres and archives. Variously known as model theatres, miniature theatres or paper theatres, toy theatres hold a special place in her heart as paper and stories come to life. She is using her miniature manuscript painting training in combination with Pollock’s toy theatre expertise to make a theatre for the 1001 Nights that will contain the potential for all 1001 stories. Although popular stories associated with the Nights such as Aladdin and Ali Baba were firmly placed in the toy theatre tradition, attempting to encompass all 1001 tales is to our knowledge something that has not been done before. Vaishali believes that Indo-Persian miniatures inspired many of the golden age illustrators of the Arabian Nights and she marries the knowledge of this unique painting tradition with the toy theatre tradition to create her own hybrid, updated form.


She is very excited to be combining several of her interests in this piece and residency which will culminate in making her unique wooden toy theatre and designing smaller published paper versions for you to make at home in both black and white and full colour, in the old style of ‘a penny plain and tuppence coloured’. 

Vaishali used to make toy theatres as a little girl and is fascinated by the feelings of wonder and power children have in small world play. A small child at heart herself, she also loves toys in general and what Virginia Woolf described as the ‘cathedral of childhood’. 

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A rustle at the back… giggles of excitement at the front… a swish as the curtains are revealed and the play begins. Introducing ALADDIN - the original rags-to-riches boy hero everyone loves - made into a paper toy theatre. Inspired in equal parts by the glorious tradition of Pollocks, Redington and Webb toy theatres and juvenile drama as well as her long training in the Indo-Persian miniature painting techniques of her heritage, Vaishali Prazmari presents the first of her intricate toy theatres for the upcoming festive season. And what better play to welcome the festivities…This series of posts will take you to backstage ALADDIN. 


Aladdin is set in China and Prazmari has taken this literally. This toy theatre is an intricate Chinese box that contains layers nestled within layers and subplots and metanarratives. We’ll uncover the meanings behind each symbol and plug into her deep research as she has poured a wealth of Chinese culture, her Hong Kong childhood memories and imagination into this highly detailed, highly researched, highly collectible and highly small toy theatre. 


In each behind the scenes post we’ll dive down into the smallest tiny details that make up the whole of ALADDIN, from the meanings behind each ancient pattern to the very dastardly poses of the little characters. We won’t show the full images of the toy theatre as it goes to press, only parts; the whole will be revealed after these glimpses of its intricacies. We are sharing the black and white ‘penny plain’ version first here. Expect dragons, brave heroes and heroines, wicked magicians, powerful genies, glittering gems, giant eggs, bustling marketplaces, gorgeous palaces, trapdoors, flying beds, swords, glowworms, jewelled trees, vast deserts, magic lamps, skullduggery and more…

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Curtain call: this curtain is based on an old Victorian original from an Ali Baba toy theatre in the Pollocks archives. Completely symmetrical, it echoes the Chinese architecture that also inspires my ALADDIN toy theatre. (Asymmetric curtains I love, and will appear in future toy theatres). 

Chinese architecture is very symmetrical, and based on the square. A lot of Chinese culture is in fact based on the square, or the union of the circle and the square (heaven and earth). Even the formation of Chinese characters take shape in a square. Nice, neat, orderly and symmetrical. 

However, Chinese gardens are noted for their asymmetry, their winding paths, and their subtle and refined manipulation of nature to make it look ‘more natural than natural’ - pure artifice in the service of nature. I have always found this to be a wonderful paradox. Compare this with the winding tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, and the asymmetry inherent in those as well as in the deep structures of Indo-Persian miniature painting… and think about orderly, perfectly symmetrical-geometrical Islamic gardens, stand-ins for paradise on earth...

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A Chinese inspired theatre needs a Chinese roof. Scroll through to see the one I settled on for this theatre: it’s actually the simplest one, to offset the intricate designs of the rest of the proscenium. Chinese architecture (and indeed much of Chinese culture) is based on the square. China in the past had a lot of space and carpenters (there was no profession of ‘architect’ as such, and carpenters did the work of making buildings, which were made of wood) built horizontally, not generally vertically. Chinese traditional houses are not often multi-storey. They sprawl horizontally and rooms lead into other rooms in the manner of the 1001 Nights, so this is where my research interest appears (my Memory Palace is also based on this principle). Buildings are made for the cultures they house - many well-to-do Chinese families were multigenerational and housed big families. ‘4 generations under 1 roof’ - this is a traditional Chinese aspiration. Our family made it, briefly, when my beloved grandmother and my eldest son spent a couple of memorable Christmasses together. Quarters were strictly defined (this is imperial, patriarchal China)… and often they had family theatres! To welcome travelling theatre troupes - who would stage operas and plays for the family, and sequestered women and children would watch from different levels and enjoy the performance with the same good views.


So the house is a square, or a cube. But the roof - oh, those iconic, unmistakably Chinese roofs - they are triangles. And I love them. Here are my variations, and the simplest is the most iconic of all. Reminiscent of a poet’s pavilion on a faraway mountain, they are instantly recognisable and much loved. They can be classic green of the mountains. Even blue of the seas. Even blue-green, like a Classic of Mountains and Seas of their own: the colour 青 qing - one of the oldest Chinese colours, which can be green, blue, green-blue, the colour of nature or springtime or even black. No Chinese I’ve met has ever agreed on this colour.  I’ll tell you my theory later - the first version of my theatre will be black and white, penny-plain, for you to colour in however you like…

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Did you know there is not ‘one’ standard Chinese dragon but several? The dragon has 9 sons, each with their own personality. Why nine? Well, perhaps because much of Chinese culture is based on a square, and a square can be nicely divided into 9 parts like a magic square. One dragon son likes music and is seen on musical instruments; one likes to fight and is seen on weaponry and armour; one likes to scream and can therefore be found on bells; one likes to sit down and is placed under Buddha’s feet; one is able to uncomplainingly carry heavy objects and is found under stele (stone tablets), graves or tombstones; one likes the law and guards prisons; one likes to drink water and ornaments bridges. That’s 7 dragons so far. 


Another, the adventurous chaofeng 嘲風, is placed on the four corners of roofs. The toy theatre doesn’t have a roof, it has a façade, so we’ve featured the 9th son of the dragon, the chiwen 蚩吻 ‘fish dragon’, placed on the edges of the roof ridges, said to swallow evil influences as well as guard against fire. He swallows fire and sprays waves of water instead. Chinese houses were traditionally made of wood so naturally this was a concern - just as it is for our paper toy theatres. I’ll have to find a way to have safe indoor fireworks, unlike the Victorians who used real gunpowder for their explosions, resulting in the burning down of many a toy theatre. I’ve scoured books on Chinese architecture and racked my memory and yes, they are always there on the roofs. Look out for them now that you know. My chiwen 蚩吻 fish dragon above is a talisman for good luck!

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The theatre needs a stage… the stage needs a floor… and this is the Hong Kong wooden parquet floor I had in my flat as a child growing up in the Far East. Very typical of Hong Kong flats, as it’s subtropical South China where there are hot, humid summers and mild, dry winters. You can paint it chequerboard style, or all wood veneers, or a multicoloured pattern. The stage is set for you…

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Desert scene with huge dunes dwarfing the tiny city in the distance. And a night sky full of stars. This is the backdrop for the stage of ALADDIN as well as a scene in itself. The wicked magician, the fake ‘Uncle Abanazar’, takes Aladdin into the desert where he conjures up a trapdoor leading down deep dark steps to a cave of wonders holding a magic lamp…

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100 Children are a common motif in Chinese art. There aren’t actually 100 children, there are just loads of kids. There was actually a historical figure, Zhou Wenwang (the founder of the Zhou Dynasty) who had 99 sons from his 24 wives (!!) and then he adopted a baby orphan boy to make it a neat 100. Of course they symbolise prosperity, fecundity and fertility as well as joy and happiness. Marguerite Fawdry of Pollock’s toy theatres fame notably loved Chinese art and especially this motif which features in her book ‘Chinese Childhood’, so this is also in homage to her as well as my own Chinese childhood…

















I have taken as a source inspiration a handscroll of 100 children in the British Museum: and here are some of them merrily playing, fighting, looking after each other and even putting on a theatrical play, all at one side of my stage, blissfully unaware of the action happening upstairs on the main stage, like a marginal scene…

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The Literati are having their own party… it’s downstairs from the main stage, opposite the kids who are being entertained on the other side. The elegant intelligentsia debate poetry, literature, calligraphy and painting at their leisure, and cups of wine gently flow down the stream to be picked up and tasted by the next person. These intellectuals know how to relax. The ideal life of a scholar-official is to paint in your country house, away from the frenzied city (at least for a little while). They lounge and finish each others’ poems or strings of chengyu - Chinese pithy 4-character idioms - and play drinking games amid elevated conversation. I’ve caught at least one of them napping.

They don’t sell their paintings for money but paint for pleasure only, and for their friends. The cultivated amateur has a higher social status than the professional painter, who must sell their paintings for a living. These gentlemen already have jobs - they even work at the highest echelons of state - they just want to get away from them for a bit. Who doesn’t want a holiday? Hope you get invited to the Literati Party where wine and inspiration flow freely under the moonlight. 

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The Orchestra: What is a toy theatre performance without music? The orchestra is there, all set up and already waiting below the stage. My Chinese musicians are girls and ladies. The tomb of Yi of Zeng from 477 BCE revealed a large number of female attendants who may have been musicians in his orchestra. Music could be ritualistic as well as celebratory and for entertainment… as well as an accompaniment to theatrical productions. Musical instruments signify harmony and conjugal harmony. A zither represents a scholarly gentleman, though women were also musicians. It’s also known as a lute or a lyre. The wood should be the dryandra tree since that is the only tree on which the Phoenix is said to alight, thus giving the instrument a touch of magic. The wood would be soaked in pure water for 72 days to correspond with the 72 divisions of the year. Every part was symbolic. 

The 8 Classical Chinese instruments were made of different elements and materials and include a bell (metal), chimes (stone or jade), a wind instrument shaped like an egg (representing clay or earth), a zither or qin (silk or strings), a percussion instrument (wood), a drum (leather), a reed pipe or sheng (a gourd; this homophone is also related to birth and/or success) and a flute (bamboo). 

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Chinese Patterns and objects 

I know some of you are very interested in patterns so you may like to know the origin of the Chinese patterns in my toy theatre. Here are some of my border patterns and I’ll go through their motifs. The lattices are geometric patterns. 


Rhombus/diamond and lozenge pattern - they can overlap. They are lucky, but their origin is obscure, as I suspect most geometric forms are since they are so ancient. You find them on doors, architecture, textiles and more. An ancient headdress worn to symbolise victory and to exorcise evil spirits may have been the inspiration, also believed to be worn by the Queen Mother of the West Xi Wangmu or Wangmu Niangniang. Our Chinese teacher taught the kids that the ancient way to address your parents is ‘niang’ for mother and ‘die’ for father, which strangely does still sound ‘right’. (Later this changed to the still-current form of ‘mama’ and ‘baba’, and you can guess which is which; although Chinese is basically completely unrelated to Western languages there are some things that are mostly universal.)


Ruyi - following on from clouds, the Ruyi is the wish-fulfilling sceptre and may also be found repeated as its own pattern. It is a homophone for ‘as you wish’. It also resembles the lingzhi mushroom of immortality. There is a theory that the Ruyi sceptre originated as a backscratcher! This is something I can relate to - my grandmother had several backscratchers made of wood fashioned with a hand at the tip so you could scratch hard to reach places by yourself. Those, and toothpicks, just seem very Chinese, very practical, and quite humorous at the same time, with more than one use. In my kids’ hands backscratchers become fighting sticks. They are not allowed to touch my mirrored Ruyi of course. The Inuit also made backscratchers, theirs carved out of whale teeth. Similarly to the Native American talking stick, when holding a Ruyi it’s your turn to talk.

If the Ruyi is related to the Chinese cloud forms, then so is the cintamani - which is yet another wish-fulfiller, a stone or a jewel, said to be the equivalent to the Philosopher’s Stone. In my Clouds class I relate both to the origins of the spiralling cloud form itself. In Tibetan tradition it falls from the sky, and it’s also common to Hinduism and Buddhism. In Ottoman Turkey, only rulers were allowed to wear this pattern, which is actually very simple (though ancient). In Turkish and Islamic tradition, it may also resemble the markings of animals…

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Yin yang - this symbol is familiar to many. It originates in the 4th century BCE. These are not necessarily related to gender but to principles. Yin is the female principle, night, shadow, darkness, quiet, inaction, weakness. Yang is the male principle, light, sunlight, day, hot, dynamic, strong. Understood more as polarities than opposites, there is a little bit of masculine in the feminine, and a little bit of yin in the yang. They are not at war with each other, as they may be in other ancient conceptions. Indeed, they are exchanging - one rises and then curls down to sink while the other one rises…It’s the everlasting circle of life and movement and my favourite Chinese symbol, so commonly seen, yet so fundamentally misunderstood. In Daoism, it is all about balance. Yet the yin is also singled out for praise as it is tranquil. There’s a reason it’s known as ‘yinyang’ and not ‘yangyin’. If you look closely, the yin is in fact on top…


Clouds - my favourite and one of the oldest and quintessentially Chinese designs. These little spiralling clouds can also be found as squared spirals, like Ancient Greek ones, and date back to the ancient Shang period, 1523-1028 BCE. The patterns that look like question marks represent thunder (very kind and gentle thunder!). The earlier clouds have fewer curls and curlicues; the later ones are more ornate and frilly and sometimes resemble the Ruyi wish-fulfilling sceptre or lingzhi fungus so can be confusing - although those will have stems and other features - and all are good omens. I teach a whole class devoted to Clouds; there is so much to tell about these merry designs. (Clouds themselves may have inspired the watery wave patterns, which is why my next class in the Elements series is Water. You’ll also see the same spiralling forms in Fire.) 


The wave pattern can occur as pyramids with foam sprays at the top, most famously seen on royal robes, and I’ve included them on the robes of my Emperor and Empress. The waves indicate the distinction between our human world and the legendary Isles of the Immortals (a favourite subject of mine - more on these later) - immortality, relegated to longevity, is a central Chinese concern. In terms of colour for both clouds and waves, reality is strictly ignored - they are multicoloured. Then again, if you think of the many moods of the sky and see, perhaps it is not so far-fetched after all. There is a tradition of 5-coloured clouds which signifies peace. Clouds mean good fortune and good luck. 

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Circles are associated with heaven, squares with earth. Squaring the circle is an eternal architecture problem. In the Islamic world it gave rise to beautiful muqarnas, or squinches, which cascade down from the dome to the square walls. China had the dougong Chinese bracket system. Circles and the hexagons you can make from circles are found after the arrival of Buddhism in China, though it is not clear where the origins of this pattern in China lie. Circular jade disks with a (round) hole in the centre (bi) date from the Neolithic age and are homophones with ‘certainly’. The other circular object with a (square) hole in the centre is the Chinese coin, so you could string several together for safety and convenience. Here apparently the hole is square because of the manufacturing process. No prizes for guessing what coins symbolise. Chinese coins were not always round, however - they could also be shaped like swords and spades. 


The swastika is an unfortunately loaded symbol, but an ancient one before the Nazis distorted it (and also got it wrong). It is a Buddhist symbol that predates Buddhism, it’s an ancient Sanskrit solar symbol from Aryan and Vedic fire worship, and for Chinese it is related to the character wan 万, meaning 10,000. Can you see how the 万 can be pushed around to make a swastika? The swastika can represent the cradle of a fire (before the rubbing of 2 sticks), the twirling movement of the fire itself, a symbol of the sun crossing the sky and the origin of many cross symbols. The swastika signifies good fortune, and the vajra thunderbolt represents power. The 3 main schools of Buddhism are the Mahayana school (I think this is the majority, so China, Korea, Japan, Bhutan and many other parts of Asia), the Theravada school (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and other South East Asian countries; it’s also the oldest school) and the Vajrayana esoteric school (Tibet, Mongolia, Himalayas and others). You think Buddhism is peaceful, blissful, Zen? Think again. The vajra or diamond thunderbolt pierces the veil of illusion in a single blast, and the vajra thunderbolt has been described as looking like a baby rattle. It’s definitely not for babies: esoteric and Tantric Buddhism has its adherents dance with skulls, among other things…

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The Proscenium: Chinese Dragon

Dragon - ah, the immortal dragon. Nothing could be more Chinese, which is why this noble beast features right on the proscenium. They breathe fire, or even fog or rain, and are always bearded. The dragon in Indo-Persian miniature painting draws heavily from the Chinese dragon, although with different meanings: they represent evil, whereas Chinese dragons can be lucky and benign. Dragons have the antlers of a deer, the head of a crocodile, the eyes of a demon, the neck of a snake, the viscera of a tortoise, the claws of a hawk, the palms of a tiger, and, curiously for me, the ears of a cow (which are soft!) - according to Sinologist Henri Doré, who also mentions that others say it has the eyes of a rabbit, the belly of a frog and the scales of a carp. They are awe-inspiring and chase a flaming jewel which is the sun, or a pearl, which is a tale of a peasant boy finding a source of never-ending food. Note that they don’t often have wings, although they can fly. Chinese think of themselves as descendants of the dragon, which, in a way, makes sense if you note their resemblance to dinosaurs. The dragon is the best sign of the zodiac, so many parents try to conceive dragon babies! They can have 5 or 4 claws on each foot. Earlier we talked about the 9 sons of the dragon. There are places called ‘9 dragons’ in the landscape, most notably in Hong Kong: Kowloon. My Fire class covers the fiery phoenix and dragon as part of its remit. There are endless myths and legends associated with the dragon so I invite you to research this and find ones you like.  

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The Proscenium: Chinese Phoenix

Phoenix - the mythical phoenix, the king of the birds, a composite bird made up of the head of the golden pheasant, the body of a mandarin duck, the legs of a crane, the mouth of a parrot (that classic hooked beak), the wings of a swallow and finally the tail of the resplendent peacock, albeit highly stylised. The Phoenix is supreme beauty and grace and becomes a feminine symbol when paired with the dragon, which is male. There are 4 ancient Chinese creatures associated with the compass directions: the phoenix, or the red bird of the south, symbolising fire and summer (as in other cultures); the azure dragon of the east (wood and spring); the white tiger of the west (metal and autumn); the black tortoise of the north (water and winter). 

All these creatures are also incorporated into my proscenium; see if you can spot the celestial quartet. The phoenix was said to appear only rarely, during the reigns of just emperors and peacetime. 

In the world of Indo-Persian miniature painting, which is also the world of the 1001 Nights and Aladdin by association, the Phoenix is correlated with the Simurgh. I cover this ancient bird in my Fire class, along with the dragon.

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The Proscenium:  There are 4 Beasts that correspond to the cycle of elements and compass directions. They are the Phoenix, Dragon, Tortoise and Tiger, and more on their colours and symbolism later.


Tortoises are a super ancient symbol for Chinese. A tortoise carried an important book (the book of the Luo River) on its back to Fuxi, the male ancestor of humans, who used it for divination and to invent all things. So the tortoise represents creation. Also longevity, because they really do live long, although Chinese believed they lived for 10,000 years. There is much more symbolism due to the tortoise, depicted here also because it’s my youngest son’s favourite animal. 


Tiger - the great tiger, one of the most revered and ancient animals, has the character for king (wang) on its forehead, displayed in stripes. Symbolising magnificence, power, strength, majesty, courage and military prowess, it’s the 3rd animal in the Chinese zodiac. It is a protector and guardian. It is a feminine symbol, in contrast to the masculine dragon. Children’s clothes often featured protective tiger motifs and paintings of tigers were thought to frighten away evil spirits. They are also associated with ferociousness and wealth. The tiger is lord of all land animals (the dragon is king of sea creatures, the tortoise shelled creatures and the phoenix rules the sky). Tigers can live for 1000 years, apparently. When it gets to 500, it changes to a white colour. Sadly, white tigers - and all tigers - are endangered. Let’s make sure we protect them. I love Tibetan tiger rugs. They are woven tigers only, and we can stick to painted paper tigers. Funnily enough, they are said to be scared of hedgehogs! 


Fish are ancient and the act of fishing represents a life of thought, contemplation and reflection, signifying retirement from worldly chaos and retreat from the city with its meddling politics. So much for fishing. The fish itself symbolise life, abundance, money, worldly wealth and joy, so we find them everywhere in Chinese art. Water and swimming fish signify flow. Carp indicates profit and power (due to its homophones), and carp leaping over the dragon gate symbolise accomplishment and academic success. Goldfish (actually a domestic variety of wild carp) definitely mean gold, and life, and abundance, even surplus. Catfish/mudfish sound like the word for ‘year’ (nian) so take on the repetitive meaning of ‘year after year [may you achieve health/wealth/happiness, delete as appropriate]’. Symbols that appear in pairs, such as fish or mandarin ducks, mean conjugal bliss. 

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ALADDIN is set in China. China has many climes - including deserts. The ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an, of the Terracotta Warriors fame) was the start - or end - of the Silk Road. 


Why China? “Seek knowledge, even unto China”, said Prophet Muhammad. “It was in China, late one moonless night/The Simurgh first appeared to mortal sight”, said Farid ud-din Attar in the Conference of the Birds. 

‘China’ could be a mythical, exotic or faraway land in Arabian eyes. This is a kind of Oriental Orientalism, so you see it is multilayered and complex. And yet there are also Chinese Muslims. Perhaps not everyone has heard of them, but there are lots. Admiral Zheng He, the fabled explorer with his treasure ships twice the size of Christopher Colombus’, was one. He brought the giraffe to China. My Chinese grandmother was one. She had a Muslim name and a panda prayer rug. She brought a sense of humour and the sense of a general good attitude to life to me. 


If Aladdin is set in China, then let it be Chinese. In my ALADDIN toy theatre there is a rich Chinese vocabulary of symbols, a bestiary of Chinese ideas and forms. Inspired by a Danish toy theatre (Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre) whose motto says El Blot til Lyst - not only for pleasure - my theatre aims to educate as well as entertain. 

Other European countries apart from England that produced toy theatres included Denmark, Germany, France, Austria and Spain. Continental toy theatres tend to be bigger; there is something magic about the miniature English paper toy theatre for me, and for children, as the idea of anything miniature is captivating. (Or anything grand, but that would be the big stage itself!)

Miniature theatres existed in China, and China also has a great tradition of shadow puppetry (as does India, Indonesia, Turkey ‘karagoz’ and others. Indeed, when you branch out into puppetry, the list is endless, and there’s a great book by Victor Nair about how painted scrolls were used by itinerant storytellers around the world as backdrops to educate and entertain…)

I’ll focus on single isolated Chinese symbols here, as their groupings read like rebuses and there are so many. The sound of a character in Chinese may sound like another word and so the images read as sentences if you know the language. 

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After a brief intermission, now back to regular programming. These are the stairs you’ll find included in your ALADDIN toy theatre. Why stairs? I have always loved the sweeping staircases you sometimes see on stage sets. They serve as an interlude between scenes too - characters can be positioned on various steps and are neither upstairs nor downstairs but in a strange in-between space. Each step serves as a mini stage in itself and this is how you can stuff several interstices of space within one scene, and play with dimension and depth. It’s not usual to include stairs in toy theatres. These dare to bridge the gap between the 2D world of paper and slightly 3D world of sculpture… call it 2.5D, where each rung is a separate platform and character placement variously high and low makes for interesting and dynamic dialogue.

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Aladdin's Palace

Each window is made of a different stone, so should be coloured differently. This is Aladdin’s palace of porphyry, jasper, agate, lapis and marble (and, we might add, an amber pillar), with walls of gold and silver, and windows set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, except for the last one, left purposely unfinished as a challenge for the Sultan to complete. Ours has a different Chinese lattice pattern in each one. 

Agate was carved into toggles to wear to wish for children, ie. sons (of course - unfair).

Gold is so important in Chinese culture, of course, and of course signifies wealth and abundance.

Silver is one of the 5 Metals (along with gold, of course, and bronze, lead and tin) and used for magical and talismanic objects as well as personal grooming, ie. hairpins (I am really into hairpins). 

Lapis lazuli was also revered by Chinese as well as Buddhists, who considered it one of their 7 precious things. According to Chinese herbals if you put lapis water on your eyes it will cure fever and inflamed eyes (don’t try it). 


Amber is the fossilised heart of a dead tiger. Here in the form of an amber pillar, to add to Aladdin’s palace if desired. It embodies courage from the tiger and also longevity. Blood amber is used in Chinese medicine as an aphrodisiac. One empress (Zhao Feiyan of the Western Han dynasty) slept on an amber pillow, benefitting from its protective properties when gently warmed. Parallel this with the tradition of giving babies safely secured Baltic amber teething beads to wear around their necks.

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Birds - and birdcages… mine is empty with the door wide open.

The Roc bird (pengniao) - the huge and powerful bird which also features in the story of Sindbad as well as in Marco Polo’s travels. Here in ALADDIN the roc egg is the final thing Aladdin asks for to complete his wondrous palace, and is rebuffed by the genie who roars that the Roc is his master and he will not harm it. ‘A roc’s flight of 10,000 li’ means to have a bright future, and thus signifies success in examinations. The roc was born by metamorphosis of the kun, an ocean leviathan, as mentioned by the philosopher Zhuangzi. So, very big things beget very big things. There is a fascination with the extremely big as well as the incredibly tiny. 


Chinese landscape paintings are hung on the walls and also feature in the lanterns and on any surface I could stick them in. There’s a Chinese screen or room divider too. They are abstracted or miniature versions of important Chinese paintings throughout history. Chinese painting is the other great painting tradition I am familiar with; I blend teaching of this style in with my other teaching: 

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Chinese shelves and curio displays: you could draw your own curios here (please share if you do, I’d love to see!). There is a Chinese marriage or opium bed. On it is a traditional Chinese uncomfortable-looking hard pillow or head rest, though I guess these are comfortable when you get used to them and when you don’t want to spoil elaborate hairstyles possibly… I have seen ancient Egyptian equivalents in museums too.


There is also a kang bed or lounger - often there are no exact furniture equivalents since this piece of furniture was designed for the cold northern Chinese climate. It was heated underneath too.


There is a footstool and a table on the kang bed. Next to it are some opium pipes prepared for your convenience (though not recommended). There is of course a bonsai and a guardian statue. Chinese chairs from the Ming and Qing dynasties are paired with tables.

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On one table you’ll find a tangram, an ancient Chinese puzzle of 7 pieces. On the other are Chinese seals, a pot of cinnabar paste (should be red) and my favourite Chinese scissors - my grandmother used these types of scissors. Seals, their stamps and the carved objects themselves, were much prized. Paintings would be stamped all over with seals of their owners which showed and increased their provenance and value. I have my own seal. You can get one too. You first need a Chinese name - in the same way that Chinese often adopt Western names when travelling to the West, foreigners will need Chinese names when in China. Choose yours carefully with a friend, otherwise you will just be given one at random and it might be a really soppy one like ‘Beautiful Moon Flower’ (no offence). Don’t worry though, as names in China can change too, at different ages and stages of life, so when she finally does something worthwhile, Beautiful Moon Flower gets to change her name to something else. Once you’ve been named you can then you can get a Chinese seal carved and stamp it on your work as your Chinese chop. Cinnabar can be made into the bright red original Chinese vermilion, as mercuric sulphide. It’s used in Chinese lacquer for its distinctive red and can be carved. It’s also made into a paste to stamp seals and is an auspicious substance. Also highly dangerous!


I have found a solution to the problem of ‘clothes that are not quite dirty enough to be laundered, yet have been worn once so cannot be put back in the wardrobe’. Our problem is that we end up strewing them on chairs or sofas. This is an elegant Chinese solution: the clothes stand. The valet stand is a possible Western equivalent, but seems more set up for suits. I like this Chinese one as it is not so 3D. It’s ready to drape clothes on immediately. Chinese clothes were soft and unstructured, so you could drape them quickly and easily over these stands. They were also folded for storage, not hung, as we do now in modern Western wardrobes. Yet hanging is also more efficient than folding… and children’s clothes are a different kettle of fish…

If anyone else has a different solution to this domestic dilemma please let me know. 


Here is a miniature theatre-within-a-theatre for you to stage a play-within-a-play - miniature versions of some of the characters are even provided for this. I enjoy the self-referential quality of this, as if the actors know they are in a play. It’s a suspension of the suspension of disbelief - or perhaps an acknowledgement that all the world’s a stage, really, and life is just one grand theatre…

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2 giant Ming vases. Vases signify peace (ping can mean both vase or bottle and peace). They are also feminine (as are vessels in general). These were made in the imperial ceramics factory at Jingdezhen, or perhaps conjured from the imagination of an unknown craftsperson who liked to mix the classic Chinese symbols of dragons, peonies and spirals in the traditional blue-and-white ceramic style. Chinese Ceramics are a whole department in themselves and not one I’m qualified to really talk about, nor even own (when you live with 3 merry clumsy men it’s not fair on the ceramics). The peony is the king of flowers and a classic Chinese flower. No two petals are the same. Chinese adore this flower which symbolises royalty, wealth, honour and riches and rank. Endlessly painted, you’ll recognise this spring flower everywhere. 

Leaf - this simple pattern is one of the oldest and has been found on Chinese textiles dating from the 1st-2nd century BCE in Xinjiang. It’s also a staple unit of tazhib Islamic illumination - indeed the first thing you learn to draw in that style - and in other pattern families around the world, as one of the most basic elements.


I like blue and white porcelain because I often use it to teach how cultural exchange on the Silk Road made products of beauty: the Persians admired Chinese porcelain for its delicacy; the Chinese admired Persian ceramics for their blue and white colour; the Chinese then mixed the Persian-Iraqi blue colour (cobalt oxide apparently) onto their ceramics and a style was born. To add yet another twist to the tale, Delftware is blue and white because they also admired this style and tried to imitate it in their own idiom. It’s a bit like denim jeans: popular worldwide for the blue colour. But your pots don’t have to be blue. They can be any colours you like: think of all the wonderful ceramic glazes out there and the arguably more colours of paint. You could paint them with metallic colours or even seal them with glue and paint on nail varnish to imitate lustreware. 

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A Chinese Lattice Screen addition to the toy theatre is my addition to the toy theatre tradition and a nod to the blurring of tales, 1001 Nights-style. We are not sure when one tale ends and another begins; they interfere with each other and don’t mind their own business. A lattice screen keeps out mosquitoes but lets in wind and gossip. A jalousie screens the goings-on from view, while also permitting them to be seen at the same time, through peeks and stolen glances. Slatted louvres protect those inside from jealous looks, rain and insects, and simultaneously allow in conjecture, speculation, sunlight, air and clouds of whispered words. 

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The Sultan’s Palace is a lived-in palace. The Sultan was born into royalty, and has known every privilege since he was born. He has had his every whim catered to, his every hobby encouraged and his every pursuit pursued. He has tried his hand at many things and bought even more. Therefore, his Palace is a mess. No matter - we are just glimpsing his Palace on his cleaners’ day off. He has a view of the imperial city from his Moongate window. He has a resident levitating monk on the ceiling for good luck, and various Chinese fans decorating the rafters. 


Staff - carrying a staff signifies old age and dignity. In Chinese villages people were allowed to use canes at age 60, outside of their home village at 70 and at 80 they could forego kneeling in front of the emperor. So there were some retirement concessions in a culture that honours old age and the elderly. A Buddhist staff had jingling rings to warn small animals away lest they be trod on. Monkey King has a magic rod that changes size to be enormous and then can be tucked behind his ear (his jingubang). My kids fight with them. I have heard of Irish walking sticks that conceal weapons like swords. My grandfather used to have a special walking stick. One day, he took me for a walk and secretly showed me why it was so special. He unscrewed the top of it and lo and behold!- there was a flask of whisky attached and concealed on the inside.a

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A Short History of Chinese Fans - the earliest fan was a leaf. Then they were made of feathers. Then came bamboo fans in the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Then came animal hair fans from circa 265 CE. The Liu Song Dynasty (420-79) saw silk moon fans, fashionable with the ladies. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) saw painted fans and in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) painted fans were so popular that their ink was hardly dry before their paintings were taken off the fan frames to be mounted as album leaves in books. Folding fans came to China from Japan via Korea although it is not known exactly when; there are depictions of folding fans in China from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-79). We did a Chinese opera workshop with the kids as operatic fan work is highly skilled. The teacher took one look at my fan and sniffed that ‘yours is for tourists’ - she was hilarious. My tourist fan was from Chinatown because it was £3 and hot that day! Though I still can’t open a fan swiftly, that’s a trick I’m missing and want to learn. Fans are associated with the intelligentsia and literati, who loved folding and circular fans, presumably silk, whereas peasants used paper fans. Fans could be hidden in voluminous Chinese sleeves, and brought out and flourished when the speaker wanted to emphasise a point, or to simply whack someone. Sleeves were Chinese pockets. My mother carries on the grand old tradition of hiding things in sleeves. It’s usually tissues. A man’s fan should contain 9, 16, 20 o4 24 ribs and a woman’s fan cannot contain fewer than 30 ribs. Fans can be magic. Sadly, a deserted wife was known as an ‘autumn fan’, since fans were discarded in autumn after the hot summer. Due to its homophone, fans signify a good and kind person, ie philanthropist. A fanthropist.

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Lining the rafters are also Chinese opera masks representing the 4 roles in Beijing Opera: Sheng, Dan, Jing, Zhou - male, female, painted face and comic face. Each role has its own vocabulary of gestures and style of singing. Chinese Opera is its own department. I encourage you to find out more if you’re interested; it’s one of the world’s great intangible cultural heritages and there are countless plays, too many to list here, although I touch on some of the colour symbolism in the upcoming Colours section. Hats and other headdresses - these can be operatic, or official, or everyday. They represent status.


The Sultan is a collector and displays curios in his cabinet, which is locked with the ‘double happiness’ symbol. 

Chinese characters - there are a few that are stylised into patterns and may be unrecognisable as characters unless you read some Chinese so I’ll point them out. The one I’ve used most is shou 壽 - longevity. It works well as a single stylised character on handles, drawer pulls, the tips of roof ridges or earrings, things like that. In its ancient seal script form you can see roof tiles with this character too. Other characters include shuang xi 囍, double happiness, which is related to marriage and fu 福, fortune, which you’ll see upside down in Chinatowns to indicate that ‘good fortune has arrived’.


Coral, especially red coral, was imported originally from Persia and Sri Lanka along the Silk Road for Chinese royalty. It’s associated with longevity because of its red colour and resemblance to deer antlers (which in turn symbolise longevity). Red coral was also a mark of distinction and rank and worn as part of a top official’s uniform. It’s still used in the Himalayan region, though it’s better if it exists in its painted form rather than actually taking it from the sea. Measuring or weighing scales signify business or commercial success. 

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8 trigrams, consisting of broken or unbroken lines, give rise to 64 different combinations, which is your I Ching (Yijing), the Book of Changes. Relating back to the yinyang symbol, isn’t life all about change and transformation? You can deflect bad Feng Shui or bad energy by hanging a powerful octagonal Bagua wall hanging of the 8 trigrams in place. There are also 8 Daoist symbols which include a fan, a sword, a flower basket, a lotus, a flute, a gourd, a pair of castanets and a percussion instrument made of bamboo. These are associated with the 8 immortals. There are 8 Buddhist symbols including a wheel, a conch shell, a canopy, an umbrella, a lotus, a vase or jar, a pair of fish and an endless knot known as the panchang, which I made once when I made a series of knots to mark each day of the 2020 pandemic. If you have a bank account or house number or even a car number plate containing the number 8, or better yet, multiples of 8, it’s gold dust. Imagine living at flat no. 888 on Eighty-eighth street - Chinese take these things seriously!


Other Buddhist symbols include the Bodhi leaf, a begging bowl, Buddha’s footprint and a seated deer (related to the deer park of Kashi/Varanasi). Also the flywhisk, which looks like a giant brush - but for flies. It’s made of horse or yak tail hair. Buddhists love all creatures so would not harm even a fly, and instead whisk it away. Nowadays in modern Hong Kong you get electrified tennis rackets - I didn’t know what these were, so I played with one in a friend’s house and zap! killed a fly without intending to. Fly whisks make for a better fashion accessory though. 

Axes represent go-betweens or marriage organisers (not wedding planners, but the people who negotiate between potential brides and grooms). ‘Marriage arrangers’. Axes are also, naturally, the symbol of carpenters. Halberds are auspicious because of homophones meaning good fortune (ji), but in reality they are a weapon. A significant number of the 214 Chinese radicals (the ordering principle for Chinese characters) are weapons, so you can tell what early society was like. 

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Knots were so common and so important in daily life that men would carry a knot-loosener around with them on their waist sash. There are multiple Chinese knots. My favourite is the button knot (one of the simplest). They generally signify happiness, good luck, prosperity and marriage. I did a whole series of Chinese knots, here as part of my 1001 Nights works.  Knots feature in the oldest classical Chinese text - an I Ching (Yi Jing) commentary by Zhou Yi: “in prehistoric times, events were recorded by tying knots; in later ages, books were used for this.”

A brief history of Chinese knots:

Double Coin knot = Western Han Period (206 BCE-CE 8)

Flat knot; Button knot = Han Dynasty (206 BCE-CE 220)

Good luck knot or Tassel knot = Northern Zhou Period (CE 557-588)

Buddha knot or Virtue knot = Sui Dynasty (581-618)

Cross knot; Double Connection knot; Round Brocade knot = Tang Dynasty (618-906)

Cloverleaf or Flower knot = Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Pan Chang knot = Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Plafond (ceiling) knot = Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) 


Mirrors were originally made from bronze and tin. They were mysterious and could even project images onto walls when a light source was shone from behind, like magic mirrors. They could reflect, from their faces in the light on a wall, the image of the raised decorations on their backs. This is due to the wavy irregularities of the reflective surface produced during the polishing stage, because of uneven pressure from the back. Other magic mirrors (huxinjing) make hidden spirits visible and protect their owners, as well as revealing the secrets of the future. Not dissimilar to scrying and looking at crystal balls, then. During a marriage ceremony, sometimes a mirror is flashed at a bride as the rays are said to be good luck. Other, older brass mirrors are said to cure madness. Mirrors represented the cosmos and could deflect evil, therefore had magical powers. More on mirrors later (and smoke…)

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Books and scrolls of course represent knowledge, learning, erudition, education and wisdom. 


Bow and arrow - this signifies hunting and by extension (masculine) power and authority as well as the birth of a son.


Brooms sweep away dirt so are lucky. Since they cast out evil in this way, they have come to represent ridding yourself of ignorance and so are a symbol of wisdom and learning.


Baskets are lucky because they can potentially carry many lucky objects (unless it’s a basket of skulls or some such), and represent abundance.


Bells are lucky and their sound scares away evil spirits and ghosts. It can also mean a successful outcome as well as safekeeping. 


Chinese chess is different to international chess (which comes from India, and which I have always preferred). Weiqi, or the game of go, is also black and white. It is extremely difficult to play and I haven’t even tried to learn it yet. Funnily enough, Confucius dismissed weiqi as being a complete waste of time. He had some other funny ideas too, and although Chinese culture is heavily influenced by him, there is also Laozi, Zhuangzi, Mengzi and other philosophers who should have an equal say (they also respected women more). Maybe he just wasn’t very good at go - it’s a difficult game to master. Legend has it that a woodcutter watched 2 weiqi masters play a game intently, and then when he looked up, he saw that his axe had rotted away and his beard had grown to his toes - that much time had passed! If you know how to play it, can you teach me?


Ribbons are lucky and miraculous and amplify the positive blessings of the objects they surround. They can mean ‘to bring along [successive] generations’, good marriage, longevity, peace or official promotion. 



Saddles are peace and tranquillity.


Shoes symbolise harmony and peace. 


That’s not a tiger rug on the floor, by the way - that’s a real tiger, and a nod to Disney’s Aladdin’s Jasmine’s pet tiger. 

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Chinese brackets or dougong - Chinese ‘muqarnas’ - are the Wings of the Sultan’s Palace. This is an ingenious way of supporting the ceiling by beams and columns, all without the use of nails. Japanese craftsmen have even more complex knotworks in their carpentry - some that are even impossible to figure out today. I remember whole temples built without a single nail or screw, and just held up by the artistry of their complex joinery. This is really an art in itself which I wanted to highlight here. 

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Aladdin’s humble origins are in his mother’s house. She spins for a living. Despite its modesty there is still beauty in their abode: look at the latticework on the floor above and in the tiles on the floor below. Those are special tiles - they are directly lifted from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis tiles from Deckard’s house in Blade Runner. How Aladdin sourced them is a mystery. The children playing in the sunlight beyond kick up feathers and leaves when they kick their ball. The hen peacefully sitting on her eggs on the rush mat beneath is used to the noise and is not peturbed. 

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The Magician’s Workshop is where he plays his alchemical games. Here are his various bottles, flasks, jars and an alembic. The cauldron bubbles with who-knows-what crafty spell and we glimpse a table for sand divination too, while a globe and an armillary sphere silently bear witness to the goings-on of this wizard’s secret chamber, overlooking a mysterious Maghrebi city of the imagination beyond. It’s night; the stars are twinkling and a soft wind rustles the hanging herbs drying on the racks above. His tools for geometry and crafting are ready on the wall and his magic staff rests in wait beneath a scrying glass.The central book is blank, ready for the spell to be written… what spell will you write, what magical diagrams will you draw, in your book?

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The path to the Lamp starts with a fountain and is lined with fierce protective animals and guardian spirits as well as jewel-encrusted trees. The fruit of those trees are real gemstones and there are sacks of gold and treasure deeper in the cave, as well as a pyramid or two. Prowling in the inner depths are all kinds of watchful animals. 


Makara: mythical and fearsome animal and hybrid water creature with a fish body and sharp claws, a trunk like an elephant , the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the eyes of a monkey and a jaw like a crocodile. Another ‘composite creature’ then, it is an ancient fertility symbol, incredulously. 


Crabs signify harmony and fertility and feature in hair ornaments (significant in themselves which is why I emphasise them - more later). 


Rats and mice signify abundance, reproduction, fertility and wealth. They are the first animal in the Chinese zodiac (having cunningly leapt onto the back of the ox, who was supposed to be first, and then running faster, in the race to determine the order of the 12 animals) and a popular animal, being associated with riches. The Chinese folk tale of the Mouse Wedding is a cautionary tale: the mouse’s father decides that the most prestigious groom for his daughter is in fact their ancient enemy, the cat, and so she weds a cat… who then eats her! Rats traditionally undo knots. In Chinese, squirrels are also grouped with mice and rodents, as ‘pine mice’ (songshu) - and they symbolise, guess what, longevity.

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5 Poisonous Creatures: these are the centipede, the lizard, the scorpion, the toad and the viper or snake. To ward off their evil influences, their images were embroidered onto clothing, perhaps paradoxically - but not so if you understand the workings of magic. During the summer solstice, a most dangerous time of year (cf mugwort) images of these were worn or hung.


Snakes are ancient and a sculpture of a dragon-like snake eating its own tail may be the early antecedent to the dragon. The snake also features in the Chinese zodiac. They are an extremely ancient symbol and their meaning (which may also have been more positive in ancient times) has been lost. They were thought to mate with the tortoise. If you buy a snake and release it this is considered to gain you great merit. It is unlucky to injure a snake which has made its home beneath your house. Chinese do actually eat (and drink!) snakes. Don’t do it. Although I suppose research is finding that snake venom can cure some ills (but still, unless you know what you’re doing).


If a lizard loses its tail and enters your ear you will become deaf. If you rub a lizard’s tail between your hands they will not perspire (and this time the tail can still be attached to the lizard). If you feed lizards vermilion then cut their tails off, you can tell if a lady is virtuous or not if its blood can be washed off or not (don’t try this at home!). A lizard can also crawl into your ears when you’re asleep and suck your brains.

Toads can also be money toads associated with riches and immortality if they have 3 legs, with coins in their mouths and young boys riding on their backs. This boy (Liu Hai) lives on the moon and is also referred to as a lesser god of wealth or coins, since he’s captured a money-spewing toad. But be warned: it also symbolises greed and gluttony. The toad is also said to swallow the moon during eclipses. A tincture of the 5 poisons was used against colds and made by prosperous traders, placed outside their shops and given to the poor as a preventative remedy (and hopefully not to just poison them). 

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