Karin Schäfer Figuren Theater

karin schäfer


when the dragon ships came

The fantastic journeys of the Chinese explorer: exciting encounters between animated film and puppet theatre

The Story

Between 1405 and 1433 Chinese admiral Zheng He led seven expeditions across the Pacific and Indian Ocean as far as the west. His voyages led him over Indonesia, India and the Arabian coast to Africa, almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus. 

The Chinese fleet was so powerful, that the European ships would have looked like nutshells next to them. More than 300 “Dragon ships”, some of them up to 120 meters long, with their red sails made of silk showed the power of the Chinese emperor. Among other things, they brought the first giraffes and zebras from Africa to China. 

Every child in China knows the stories of Zheng He and they also entered the treasure of stories in the Arabic-speaking world, transforming his birth name “Ma Sanbao” to “Sinbad” (the sailor) - while he remained widely unknown in Europe.

The performance

Karin Schäfer tells the story of the great Chinese explorer based on the viewpoint of some of the people who met him: in each of the countries he travelled to he left behind a story or an anecdote.

Each of these tales is embodied by one figure representing also one of the main themes of his travels: a scholar from Arabia who exchanges scientific knowledge with the Chinese expedition; an African fisherman who helps bring wild animals, including a giraffe, onto the dragon ships; a businesswoman from Siam who knows the economic reasons behind the Chinese expedition.

The Emperor’s historian, Ma Huan creates the narrative arc, delivering us these stories through his enigmatic Chinese characters.

The Production

All of these different personalities - represented by life-sized mask figures accompany us with "strange words": every character speaks their own language, but they still manage to understand each other through imaginative ideas (and so does the audience).  With multiple visual impressions we go through this fantastic adventure in a completely new form of combining puppet theatre, video, animation film and music. 

All videos and animated sequences in the play were also created by Karin Schäfer and Peter Hauptmann. Many of the visual impressions in the projections come from their own travels with the productions of the Karin Schäfer Figuren Theater around the world. This closes the circle between their own experience and personal encounters and the travels of Zheng He, whose history they themselves have come to know on a trip to China.


We are delighted about the STELLA AWARD jury’s opinion, which sums up very well our intention:

"A surprising feature of the stage setting is the interaction between the elaborate designed video and stage work: a character is painted on paper and magically transforms into a ship, video and actors perform dialogues and break the line between the screen and the stage, the animation films, film sequences, shadows and masks form a poetic space that continues the story on a visual level. The professional and multi-layered use of new media is phenomenal in this production. "


The Music

Gernot Ebenlechner is the composer and responsible for the sound design. The traditional instruments and sounds from the diferent countries are fused and interpreted into modern sounds and rhythms, connecting directly to the younger audience.

The Journey

This performance is about a journey, yet the performance is traveling itself: so far it has been seen in these following countries and has received numerous awards at international festivals:

Austria, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Serbia, Romania, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Israel, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Senegal and China.