Memory helps to propel humanity forward. Deeply rooted unconscious memories have grown and expanded along with our nervous systems, flowing through our veins to become an integral part of our lives. Budaixi (Taiwanese puppet theatre) characters like Su Yamun and Opei Leunggun are important parts of the childhood memories of Taiwanese over the age of 30. The cultural heritage of Taiwanese budaixi is etched on the collective consciousness of Taiwanese in much the same way that westerns are etched on the minds of Americans and kung fu movies on the minds of the Chinese.
In March 1970, Huang Chunhsiung, a puppeteer for Huwei Wuchou Puppeteering Troupe of Southern Taiwan and student of Huang Haidai, performed “Su Yamun, The Great Knight From Yunchou” on Taiwan Television Station (the island’s earliest channel). Using martial arts and drawing from a variety of subject matter, it became all the rage in Taiwan with record viewing ratings of 97 per cent. In Wong Kar-wai’s movie “Days Of Being Wild”, Leslie Cheung points to his watch and tells Maggie Cheung, “I will always remember this moment.” In much the same way, budaixi was immortalised for young Taiwanese.
Let’s look at the origin, development and historical background of budaixi. According to tradition, budaixi finds its roots in 17th century Quanzhou, at the cusp of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. A xiucai (a person who has passed the imperial examination at the county level) called Liang Binglin stayed in a temple on a journey to take part in an imperial examination in the provincial capital. That night, he dreamt a supernatural being wrote on his hand the characters for “Scholarly honour is in your hands”. He thought the gods were telling him he would pass the examination. He didn’t. Liang’s family was poor and his efforts for officialdom had been unsuccessful, so he was forced to earn a living as a storyteller. While travelling through Quanzhou he saw a marionette show, which was very popular locally. Liang started performing his own shows in the Chinese countryside, based on adaptations from his storytelling, using puppets rather than marionettes. He was a hit and budaixi was born.
Another version of the tale has it that, as a xiucai reduced to performing in the countryside, Liang was unwilling to be seen in public, choosing instead to perform anonymously from behind a curtain. This story tells us this theatrical form, including hand puppets, a stage divided by curtains, and a storyteller, was already in existence at this time.
Budaixi came to Taiwan in the mid-19th century with large groups of immigrants from the Minnan area of China. They brought with them Zhangzhong (“in the hand”) theatre, which used puppets with relatively simple and crude costumes, hence the popular name “budaixi” (“sack-cloth theatre”). The development of Taiwanese budaixi can be divided roughly into three periods. Firstly, the pre-Japanese occupation period, during which there were many advances in budaixi martial arts techniques. Secondly, the period of Japanese occupation: in keeping with the occupying government’s “Japanisation of colonised peoples” policies, new techniques were employed in budaixi including the use of everyday language, stage revolutions and record player music. Finally, the post-war period, when politically sensitive subject matter was prohibited.
As a medium, budaixi was not suited for slow-paced love stories or stories about family ethics. So puppeteers developed martial arts plays emphasising justice, paving the way for the performance of subject matter never before performed in Chinese traditional opera. A new star, entirely different from Minnan traditional opera, was born – Golden Ray Puppet Theatre.
Golden Ray budaixi techniques drew from a variety of performance styles, including Taiwanese Opera and traditional storytelling techniques. But it also had to compete against them for audiences. As a result, all facets of Taiwanese budaixi, including martial arts performance, scenery, sound effects, the carving of the puppets, dialogue, costumes and story lines, changed. At first, this new form of budaixi performed mainly revisions of traditional novels, but the need for new subject matter compelled players to start creating their own stories. More often than not, Golden Ray Budaixi had a martial-arts style reminiscent of the Legend of Zu, accompanied with dazzling lights and sound effects, distinctive characters and costumes, and original music and voice interpretations to pique audience interest. Budaixi became the most important recreational activity for Taiwanese in the 1950s, its popularity confirmed when it managed to make the jump to television.
The book “A History of Puppet Theatre” points out that budaixi took many leads from other media as it developed Huang Junhsiung adapted musical scores from American westerns for budaixi performances, records were cut and a budaixi series was taped and broadcast. When satellite TV made its debut, Pili Budaixi even got its own satellite television station, and recently the computer-animated budaixi movie “Legend of the Sacred Stone” went head to head with “Toy Story 2” in a battle for hearts of Taiwanese children.
Budaixi grew up with me, like a childhood friend. As I enter the prime of life, I remember the budaixi I began watching as a toddler. I am confident budaixi has left an indelible mark on every Taiwanese. Faced with the new generation’s changing interests in regards to entertainment, Taiwanese budaixi will either follow other traditional arts into the corridors of history or it will stay with us, a towering giant in this new century. Judging by the speed at which budaixi has recreated and enriched itself, I think the answer is crystal clear.
P.S. A couple of days before deadline, I read an article in Vogue magazine about John Galliano’s creations for Christian Dior. Galliano’s ideas were drawn from the costumes of minority groups around the world, including some that closely resemble costumes worn by budaixi puppets. Likewise, Jean Paul Gaultier has designed clothing that looks as if it came out of the wardrobe of Taiwanese budaixi character Mok Jono. Perhaps Galliano’s culture is not restricted by borders.